This article has been updated from its original version to provide clarification over Tottenham’s position on the players leaving for international duty, further context on Brazilian health officials’ decision to halt the match, and an update on when the Spurs players may return to the UK. (09.06.21)
Sunday’s World Cup qualification match between Brazil and Argentina was called off after Brazilian health officials rushed onto the field to halt play six minutes after the match had kicked off. The reason for this unprecedented action centers around four Argentina players who reside in the United Kingdom and play football in the Premier League, including Tottenham Hotspur’s Cuti Romero and Giovani Lo Celso, both of whom started the match.
But although they were the catalyst for everything that happened today, this story is not REALLY about them, either. The actions that led up to today’s absolutely bonkers scenes in Sao Paulo are rather difficult to unpack, and involve COVID-19 protocols, two South American football federations, politics, and whole TON of bad blood.
I don’t know if I can do this justice, but damn the torpedoes — let’s try and unpack this, explainer-style. Some of this info is culled from this incredible timeline of events on Twitter by EIF Sports, which you should probably also read if you want the TL;DR version of what’s below.
So what the heck just happened?
In short, chaos. Six minutes after kick-off of the match between Brazil and Argentina, Brazilian health officials from Anvisa, the federal organization tasked with, among other things setting and enforcing COVID-19 protocols, rushed onto the field of play to halt the match. They did this because Argentina had brought along four Premier League players based in the United Kingdom — Tottenham’s Romero and Lo Celso, along with Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez and Emiliano Buendia — in apparent violation of Brazil’s COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The match was eventually called off.
Sooooo.... the four players weren’t supposed to be there?
Well, no. But this is where it starts to get complicated.
So in order to understand it, you need to know a couple of pieces of background information. First of all, it’s helpful context to know about the UK’s “stoplight” system for COVID travel. Very briefly, for countries that are on the “red list,” used to designate countries where COVID-19 infections are running rampant and unchecked, any visitors who are returning to the UK are required by UK law to isolate for ten days in a government-issued hotel and then pass a COVID test before they are allowed to enter. Restrictions are less onerous for amber or green listed countries. Different countries have different statues in place for COVID travel restrictions, which is part of why this is so complicated.
Secondly, because a number of South American countries — rightly or wrongly — are “red-list” countries in the UK, the Premier League and all 20 clubs came to an agreement that the league would not let ANY Premier League footballers who were set to play international matches in these countries report for international duty, since the quarantines and the risk to the players outweighed the benefits. Were they to stay and play in all three qualifiers during the break, they would potentially miss as many as three club matches, and possibly more since they wouldn’t be able to train while in UK isolation upon their return.
This didn’t go over well with the South American football federation (CONMEBOL), nor with FIFA and notably the Argentinian football association (AFA), who put enormous amounts of pressure on the clubs to release CONMEBOL players for these important qualifiers.
So how did these four end up reporting?
The players decided to go anyway. Romero, Lo Celso, Martinez, and Buendia made a deal with the AFA that they would report for Argentina duty, but only play in two of the three scheduled games — at Venezuela, and at Brazil. They would skip the third match — home to Bolivia — and instead of returning to the UK, they’d travel to Croatia for ten days (along with Tottenham’s Colombian defender Davinson Sanchez, who had a similar deal).
Aston Villa had a direct role in negotiating this Croatia plan with the AFA, and it was assumed that Spurs did as well, but it was recently revealed that Lo Celso and Romero both reported without permission, and Tottenham are expected to fine them when they return to the UK, whenever that is.
Wait, why Croatia?!
Because Croatia is a green-listed country in the UK. If they were to return straight to the UK they’d be stuck in a hotel room for a week and a half — no training, no nothing. But if they go to Croatia, the five of them could stay in quarantine away from everyone else but still train together, so they wouldn’t be so far behind in their match fitness when they do get back to the UK. And because Croatia is green-listed, they wouldn’t need to isolate or quarantine when reporting back to their clubs.
Harry Kane did something similar when he reported back to Tottenham this summer (albeit a week late) — as USA is an amber-listed country, the middle tier in the system, he still had to quarantine but could do it at Tottenham’s cushy Hotspur Way lodge and train by himself until he passed his negative test.
Did Brazil’s FA also have a similar deal in place for its players?
No. They didn’t call up ANY of their Premier League players for this international break. We’ll get to that.
Gotcha. So, report, play two matches, then Croatia and home. So what went wrong?
Plenty, but not until the UK Four (as I’ll refer to them now) traveled to Brazil. Apparently, Brazil has a statute on the books that states that any non-Brazilian traveler that enters Brazil and has been in the UK in the past 14 days is required to quarantine for an additional two weeks before they are admitted into the country, unless they had authorization paperwork filed to allow for an exemption. When the UK Four completed their customs declarations upon flying to Brazil from Venezuela, they did not state that they were in the UK prior, even though that was easily verifiable and even derisively obvious. They did not have exemption paperwork.
The penalty for such an infraction ranges from a fine to up to two years in prison.
Yep. Now here’s where Anvisa, an arm of Brazil’s health agency, comes in. Anvisa caught wind of the fact that four UK-based Argentina players had basically lied on their declaration forms to gain access to the country. As soon as they discovered this on Sunday, Anvisa put a statement on their website calling for the immediate quarantine of the four players, and then went to the Argentina team’s hotel to try and apprehend and DEPORT the UK Four. But by that point the team had already left to head to the stadium for the match.
We don’t know why the players didn’t declare that they were in the UK, and that sounds bad, but that levies an accusation of malice at the players that probably isn’t there. It’s been heavily implied that the AFA had instructed the UK Four to NOT declare that they had been in the UK when entering the country, possibly because they assumed that it wouldn’t matter, or possibly because they just wanted to say “f—k the rules.” Either way, it’s very, very likely that the four players were following orders given to them by their association and assumed everything was going to be okay.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian football association (CBF) and CONMEBOL reached a deal to basically let the teams play, even with the “illegal” players, but only under duress. Two of the UK Four — Lo Celso and Romero — were already slated to start the match. Brazil ended up agreeing to let the UK Four play, if only because CONMEBOL had informed them that if they didn’t let them play Brazil would have points deducted from their qualifying campaign! Argentina wanted to play because they had managed to smuggle in some of their best players illegally from the UK. Sure, it was all a little shady but that could be worked out. Play the match, work out the messy stuff later.
So, back to the stadium.
Right. So Anvisa officials traveled to the stadium (which took a while due to traffic) but didn’t get there until right as the match had started. They supposedly talked with members of CONMEBOL, the CBF, and federal police at the stadium who informed them of the deal to play the match.
Anvisa said hell no, and walked out onto the pitch to stop the match, six minutes after it started.
Woah! That’s wild!
It gets better! The Argentina players retreated to the locker room. When Anvisa officials tried to gain access to apprehend the UK Four, the AFA locked the doors and refused to let the officials in!
Eventually, the match was officially suspended, and the Brazilian team then held an open training session for the crowd that had attended, expecting to see a football match involving these two arch-rivals. Lionel Messi was very confused. Argentina was eventually escorted back to their hotel.
So really, this is all the AFA’s fault, right? They brought players along, broke COVID protocols, and instructed them to lie about it.
Well, yes. But also no. The Brazilian FA is also somewhat culpable here too, because they’ve been treating COVID restrictions as secondary when it benefits them, as in this summer’s relocated Copa America which was inexplicably moved due to COVID from Argentina and Colombia to Brazil, which had worse COVID numbers. The CBF was fully prepared to raise a righteous stink about Argentina’s shenanigans right up to the point where they were threatened with points deductions if they didn’t comply, despite the fact that they’ve participated in some COVID-related tomfoolery in the not-so-recent past. Nobody’s hands are clean here.
Two months after Brazil forced these teams to play the Copa América even though the teams (citing COVID concerns) didn't want to, Brazil (citing COVID concerns) is shutting down a qualifier the teams had happily kicked off. What.— John Muller (@johnspacemuller) September 5, 2021
After the match postponement, Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni defended his federation, his team, and his players, arguing that nobody ever told them that the match couldn’t be played.
“At no time were we notified that they could not play the match. We wanted to play the match, the Brazilian footballers [did] too. It should have been a party for everyone to enjoy the best players in the world. I would like the people of Argentina to understand that as a coach, I have to defend my players.
“It makes me very sad, I am not looking for a culprit. If something happened or did not happen, it was not the time to make that intervention.”
But what about Anvisa?
That’s the really wild thing. The possibility of sporting exemptions for COVID travel already existed, but even after a deal was cut between the AFA, the CBF and CONMEBOL, this arm of Brazil’s health ministry overruled them to try and apprehend and deport what they saw as a threat to public health and safety — four Premier League footballers from the UK. The CBF said they were, basically, shocked.
25. CBF have issued a statement saying they are “absolutely surprised by Anvisa’s actions” and that these matters could have been dealt with adequately way before.— EiF (@EiFSoccer) September 5, 2021
Moreover, there are suggestions that Anvisa overstepped their bounds in walking onto the pitch, as it isn’t clear whether they even had the authority to apprehend and deport people in this way for violating COVID travel protocols. Anvisa however, doesn’t see it that way — to them, the CBF and AFA’s agreement to play with the UK Four violated Brazilian law, and they were well within their rights to stop the match, regardless of whatever agreement they came up with. For Anvisa, this was as much about the Brazilian federation’s attempts to circumvent a COVID travel restriction that they didn’t like as it was about the AFA smuggling four players through quarantine.
Aren’t the players all vaccinated anyway?
Maybe. We don’t know. That’s not really the point though. This whole thing can basically be summarized as a continuation of a long-simmering pissing match between Argentina and Brazil that has gone on for decades. Argentina basically cheated to get some of their better players into the country to give themselves an advantage in the match. They either didn’t know about the 14 day quarantine period for travelers coming to Brazil from the UK (which is bad) or, more likely, they knew and just didn’t care (which is worse). Remember, Brazil didn’t call up any of their UK-based players because of the Premier League’s prohibition and due to the need for quarantine due to their return. They were spitting mad about this too, even if they did agree to let the UK Four play.
So despite the UK Four’s involvement as a catalyst for all this stuff, it’s not really about them — it’s more a reflection about how nations and their football governing bodies are approaching and enforcing COVID-19 protocols in the face of multi-billion dollar sporting forces. Or rather, everything that happened today is really about a heck of a lot more than just four Premier League players who wanted to play for their country.
In short, it’s peak CONMEBOL soccer.
So what happens now?
The match has been suspended, and no one’s sure when it’ll be played or what the ramifications for Brazil or Argentina are — the FIFA Disciplinary Committee will figure out next steps, but it could result in Argentina forfeiting the match if they are found to have breached protocols.
Meanwhile, as of now it appears that at least SOME of UK Four will be deported from Brazil for omitting information from their declaration forms, even though they likely did so at the behest of their country’s football association. Nobody got arrested, though that was likely never going to be an option. An Aston Villa source says that the two Emis will travel to Croatia for the quarantine and training session before their return to the UK.
Alejandro Martinez, the brother of Emiliano: "Yesterday, it was arranged that Emiliano would travel to Croatia on Monday. They spoke with the club and AFA, he wasn't going to play against Bolivia." This via @oraldeportivaok.— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) September 5, 2021
If the same applied to Lo Celso and Romero, it would see them return to the UK no later than September 15, four days before Tottenham’s highly anticipated match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sept. 19. Rather than missing four matches, they might end up missing only two — Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace, and the upcoming Europa Conference League match at Rennes.
However, now that may not be the case. As of Monday morning, Argentina had been making noises suggesting that they were planning to keep Lo Celso and Romero through Friday’s match against Bolivia on Thursday in Buenos Aires. Argentinian paper Ole (via Sport Witness) is reporting that Lo Celso and Romero are both pressuring Spurs to let them stay for the Bolivia match. Should that happen, then nobody knows what will happen next. Would they go to Croatia? Would they return directly the the UK? Isolation? Quarantine? All bets are off, though a resolution is expected by sometime Monday.
Let’s be perfectly honest — despite the fact that two Tottenham Hotspur players were in the middle of one of the most chaotic football incidents in recent memory, this is also objectively hilarious. Watching this all play out in real time — the moment where Anvisa halted the match was on live television — was flabbergasting, and mind-blowing, and very, very funny.
And to end on a lighter note, there’s this bright side: despite all of the chaos and messy drama, Tottenham fans can still use this whole scenario to banter their own arch-rivals. Because isn’t that what stories like this are for?
Tottenham has had more players deported from Brazil (2) than Arsenal has premier league goals (0)— Stephen Montez (@SMONTEZ99) September 5, 2021