The club vs. country fight is a long and storied one in soccer, with clubs always more than a little peeved about releasing the players they’re paying millions to travel to different training schedules and medical staffs, for games they aren’t compensated for. Players getting hurt on national team duty always riles clubs and their fans. The next time this conflict rolls around, the end of this month, could be one of the messier in recent memory.
It’s not only because FIFA has jammed in three games to these windows where normally there would only be two, adding to the insane workload players already have. In addition, FIFA have allowed the clubs to not release players for the upcoming window, bending to the complications of COVID and the restrictions and protocols different countries have. Normally, when a player is called up to his national team for official games on the FIFA calendar, the clubs have to release the player for those games.
This is of particular concern to England and the Premier League. Currently, the UK has not made an exception for athletes on their travel protocols when traveling back from countries on their “red” list. Which means that players who are called up to national teams in South America or Portugal would have to quarantine in an airport hotel for 10 days upon return. This is, obviously, an issue.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp brought this up with the press today, and though Klopp has had a habit of bitching over the limit this season, he’s got a valid point here — and he won’t be alone. Liverpool have three Brazilian players — Alisson, Roberto Firmino, and Fabinho — as well as a Portugese one in Diego Jota. With an injury-ravaged side, Klopp certainly would find being without those four for two Premier League games and a possible Champions League quarterfinal while they quarantine a massive headache. And as Liverpool are now in a desperate chase for one of the Champions League places with five or six other teams, every game is vital.
But Liverpool aren’t the only ones. Manchester United wouldn’t want any part of playing two Premier League games, including one against Spurs and a possible Europa League quarterfinal, without Bruno Fernandes. Ditto Everton playing games without James Rodriguez as they also chase a top-four finish. This list could go on.
That doesn’t mean Brazil is going to be an uninterested observer to all this, for instance. Its qualifying schedule during the next window sees games in Colombia and at home to Argentina, two of the toughest it will face in South American’s grueling World Cup qualifying schedule. Same goes for Colombia eying up facing Brazil without James. Should the clubs decide to withhold those players, there could be something of a fight.
As we saw with the Australian Open, it’s not just the quarantine itself that’s the problem. Highly tuned athletes sitting around for 10 days would require making up in fitness afterwards, which could take some days or even a week, and have effects longer than that. Premier League teams could be looking at being without these players for three league games, if so.
Other countries have exemptions for athletes, though Germany also has the 10-day rule in some cases. And soccer tends to be copycat like any other sport, so if one big club sees another refusing to release its players for international duty, you can bet they’ll follow suit.
In that ESPNFC story, it is mentioned that CONMEBOL, South America’s governing body, would reportedly not play if their European players weren’t allowed to come over. But how they would restructure their already packed World Cup qualifying schedule is another mystery. South American teams play 18 games in their qualifying process, and they’ve only knocked out four so far. They’re also going to attempt to cram in a Copa America in the summer, further stressing the seams of the schedule. There’s really nowhere to make up those games in future windows, and altering the structure of qualifying in the middle of it would:
1. Be beyond the notoriously balloon-handed CONMEBOL, and ...
2. Hardly be fair with such stakes.
Recent news suggests that the finish line is in sight, finally. But getting there could be a 20-car pileup.