So long as the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus continues to rage unchecked across much of the world, international football is going to be complicated. The latest incident has involved conflicts between England’s Premier League clubs and FIFA regarding letting international stars report to their countries for this week’s World Cup qualifiers in what the UK is calling “red-list” countries.
The Premier League initially had refused to release all international players who were set to play matches in red-listed countries from reporting for international duty. Players who leave for international matches in red-listed countries, itself a politically fraught designation, are required by UK law to isolate in a government-issued hotel for ten days upon their return.
This causes a major headache for teams like Tottenham Hotspur — Giovani Lo Celso, Cuti Romero (Argentina), and Davinson Sanchez (Colombia) ended up reporting anway, with the understanding that if they play in all three World Cup qualifiers that they wouldn’t be out of isolation and ready to return to training until September 23. This would mean missing four upcoming Spurs matches — at Crystal Palace, at Rennes, home to Chelsea, and at Wolves in the League Cup, and as they’d be isolating in a hotel room and not training, it would make their participation in the September 26 North London Derby a serious doubt. They would presumably be fit for the October 3 match vs. Aston Villa, after which would come another international break and the cycle begins all over again.
According to the Athletic (£), a compromise was struck between Tottenham’s South American players and the club by which all three would report for international duty but play in only the first two scheduled matches. Afterwards, they would then travel to Croatia for ten days of quarantine and training. This would allow them to return earlier, and presumably closer to match fitness. Croatia is a green-list country, meaning if they travel from a red-list country there instead, they can spend nine days there training and then return directly to the UK without any need to self-isolate. Aston Villa’s two Argentina internationals, Emiliano Buendia and Emiliano Martinez, agreed to a similar plan with their club.
That was the plan, and there doesn’t seem to be an issue between Sanchez and Colombia. However, Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni seems to have other ideas. This past Wednesday, Scaloni implied that he was going to be keeping all of his players for the entire duration of the international break, including the third match against Bolivia on September 9. This is counter to the compromise arrangement reached between the FA and the Premier League clubs. “We gave the list for the three matches and there was no doubt,” Scaloni said. “The players are here for the three matches.”
Should Scaloni put his foot down it would be pretty upsetting to both Tottenham and Aston Villa, and could jeopardize the clubs’ willingness to release their players for future international breaks, even if those include World Cup qualification matches. The Athletic states that clarification about the status of Tottenham’s Argentine internationals will be forthcoming, but probably not until Monday. Until then, the immediate future of Lo Celso and Romero will remain in limbo.
Having international players report for duty and then by law be required to isolate to the extent that they miss all but one club match before the next international break does not seem to be good stewardship of these players’ careers. Neither does it seem fair to prevent these players from representing their countries in a year before a World Cup. Tottenham and Aston Villa seemed to have hit upon a compromise, but it’s up to everyone involved to agree to it or relationships between the players, clubs, and federations will continue to fester.