A World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina, South America’s most successful soccer teams, was put on hold after just a few minutes on Sunday after Brazilian health officials entered the pitch for the game as part of an effort to expel four Argentine players accused of violating the coronavirus quarantine regulations.
In chaotic scenes in São Paulo, a group of Brazilian public health officials entered the pitch minutes after the highly anticipated clash and ordered the Argentinian players to leave the pitch as officials for both sides, an small crowd allowed inside the stadium and a global TV audience struggled to understand exactly what was going on.
The problem was the status of four members of the Argentina squad, including three starters who play club football in the English Premier League. According to local regulations, foreign travelers who have spent time in Britain in the previous 14 days are required to self-quarantine upon arrival in Brazil.
Officials from a Brazilian health regulator, Anvisa, said in a press release that they had concluded that the Argentinian players had lied about their presence in England when they entered Brazil. Two days of meetings failed to resolve the issue, the agency said. She therefore sent staff to the stadium where Brazil and Argentina had taken the field Sunday afternoon, to request “immediate segregation and transport to the airport”.
Argentina arrived in Brazil on Friday morning with four England-based players. All of the players first traveled to Venezuela, where Argentina played a qualifying game earlier last week, before arriving in Brazil three days ago.
In images broadcast live around the world, health officials and some of Argentina’s players were involved in a brief altercation before the team returned to their locker rooms. Discussions on the pitch ultimately involved officials from both teams and stars like Lionel Messi and Neymar.
The match referee finally suspended the game. Once the Argentina retreated to their locker rooms, the Brazilian players waited on the pitch before starting an impromptu training session using half of the pitch to entertain the stunned crowd. Meanwhile, a procession of police prepared to drive the Argentinian players away from the stadium.
The decision to quit the game came on a dramatic day during World Cup qualifiers around the world. In Africa, the Moroccan team had to flee the capital of Guinea, Conakry, after reports of a military coup in the West African country a day before these teams met. during a qualifying match. And in Tennessee, the United States announced that one of their players had tested positive for the coronavirus and a second, star midfielder Weston McKennie, had been suspended for violating team policy. , which McKennie said on Instagram to be the Covid protocol.
The events in Brazil threaten to further damage relations between FIFA, football’s governing body and the organization responsible for the World Cup, and Europe’s top clubs and leagues, which have been involved in a dispute over the release of players for qualifying matches.
Several European leagues and teams had already taken unilateral decisions to prevent their players from traveling to South America for the World Cup qualifiers this month, complaining that they had no choice as the players would be forced to miss key league games if they had. Brazil were missing nine players for the game against Argentina, and other nations were also hampered by the failure of clubs to release players.
Premier League’s Tottenham and Aston Villa have allowed their Argentines to travel, however. Tottenham Hotspur’s Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso were in the starting squad in São Paulo, as was Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. His teammate Emiliano Buendia was a replacement.
The incident came just hours after Brazilian health regulator Anvisa said four Argentinian players had to self-isolate and could not play in the game. Local media reported that the players involved did not report that they were in Great Britain, a charge denied by the Argentine Football Association.
It was unclear why Anvisa hadn’t acted ahead of the game, given the Argentina team had been in the country for three days and because the agency had previously said the four England-based Argentina players should self-isolate. and not to participate in matches at the stadium. .
Some of the Argentinian players, including its captain, Messi, lingered in the tunnel area for several minutes after the match was stopped as officials and players tried to make sense of the dispute. Eventually, about an hour after the game was first suspended, the South American regional football body, CONMEBOL, announced that the game had been abandoned.
CONMEBOL noted that the decision to abandon the match was up to the referee, but noted that FIFA had final authority over the matches.
“The World Cup qualifiers are a FIFA competition,” CONMEBOL said in a statement posted on Twitter. “All decisions concerning its organization and development are the exclusive power of this institution. “
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said in comments posted on the national team’s Twitter page that the team had at no time been made aware that they could not field the UK-based players, and he questioned the timing of the raid from health officials. “We wanted to play the game, the Brazilian players did too,” he said.
Claudio Tapia, the president of the Argentine soccer federation, disputed the accusation that one of the team’s players lied about their trip. He said health officials in Brazil approved the rules under which the Argentina team traveled to Brazil.
“You can’t talk about a lie here because there is health care legislation under which all South American tournaments are played,” Tapia said. “The health authorities in each country have approved a protocol that we fully respect. “
Brazilian TV commentator hit Anvisa’s head during live broadcast of what should have been the first half of the game. Anvisa official Antonio Barra Torres said the Argentinian players had ignored instructions to remain in isolation pending their deportation from the country for failing to say they had been in Britain.
“They moved to the stadium, entered the pitch and there was a string of non-compliances,” he said in comments posted by Globo.
Brazilian soccer federation acting president Ednaldo Rodrigues criticized the timing of the decision by health officials, saying the players could have been sent home after its conclusion.
“I’m sorry for all the sports fans who wanted to watch the game on TV,” Rodrigues told Brazilian broadcaster SporTV. “With all due respect to Anvisa, they could have solved this earlier and not waited for the game to start.”