While the European teams are in action in the Nations League, South America is sitting out the September FIFA dates.
Two rounds of World Cup qualifiers had originally been scheduled for this month, but they fell foul of the sad fact that most of the continent has been unable to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.
The clock is ticking. South America’s marathon format of World Cup qualification — all 10 nations meeting each other home and away — was supposed to kick off at the end of March, when all international football was cancelled. Missing out on two FIFA dates means that the continent is already four games behind schedule. If the action does not kick off in the next FIFA date, then fitting all 18 rounds in before the 2022 World Cup starts to look like a problem.
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On Friday, FIFA confirmed the calendar of matches for next month but that is not necessarily the end of the story. There is much to be done before World Cup qualification in South America can make its belated beginning.
The Copa Libertadores, the continent’s equivalent of the Champions League, is due to restart in the middle of next week. This is no easy undertaking. CONMEBOL, South America’s football federation, has had to work long and hard in difficult circumstances. In four of the 10 nations, the domestic leagues have yet to return. Colombia hopes to get going later this month. But there is no start date for Argentina, Bolivia or Venezuela.
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Such caution is understandable. In training for the resumption of the Libertadores, 18 players from Argentina’s Boca Juniors tested positive for the virus. Further north in Brazil, reigning continental champions Flamengo currently have both their first choice goalkeepers out of action for the same reason. It is precisely for this reason that CONMEBOL have allowed clubs to register 40 players in their squads instead of the usual 30 — to provide enough cover to replace those who are forced out of action.
The risks are clear, but many of the clubs are desperate for a return of the continent’s premier club competition and the revenue that it generates. And so CONMEBOL took it upon themselves to smooth out some of the big problems.
One was logistical. How could the teams travel to away games efficiently and safely? Distances are vast and travel connections can be precarious at the best of times. The answer was for CONMEBOL to pay for charter flights — ensuring not only that teams could get to away games, but also that they could do it in isolation, without coming into contact with other passengers.
This was is part of a detailed health protocol which ensures that visiting players will have minimal contact with anyone at the airport, hotel or stadium. And this in turn was vital for the governments of the 10 countries to agree to open their borders to travelling football teams, and not to enforce quarantine regulations on them as they enter, or when they return to their country of origin.
This is all very well inside South America. But it becomes much more complicated with the World Cup qualifiers, because the players have to assemble from all over the planet.
The star names, of course, are in Europe. A way has to be found to get them safely across the Atlantic. Then, with one game home and one away, they face another journey, possibly a long one, inside South America. And then they fly back to Europe to rejoin their club sides.
Any European club would be reluctant to release players in these circumstances. First there is the risk of contamination, and then there is the question of quarantine restrictions on their return to Europe. South American governments may have agreed to wave these restrictions for footballers, but will European administrations be as willing? In this case CONMEBOL cannot bring political pressure to bear. Can FIFA? It looks like a stretch.
For the time being, the October FIFA dates are in the calendar. But at the moment it is unclear how they can go ahead in South America, which could be going into November with its World Cup qualifying programme a full six rounds behind schedule.