The continent that produced the novel “Love in Time of Cholera” appears firmly committed to go ahead with football in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus has not been brought under control in large parts of South America. Even so, CONMEBOL, the continent’s football authority, is ploughing on with its plans to restart the Copa Libertadores, in the middle of September.
The organization hopes that it has found a way round the two leading obstacles. One is travel. Distances are vast and infrastructure is not always ideal. Getting around South America can be difficult for teams at the best of times. With the airline industry suffering such a hit, it is currently even harder — hence the South American federation’s plan to meet the costs of charter flights.
The other problem is, of course, the concern over crossing national borders. Countries who have dealt well with the virus are understandably jumpy about contact with teams from nations that have been less successful. CONMEBOL hopes to allay such fears with a detailed protocol which places visiting teams in a “sanitary capsule,” with minimal contact with others whether they are travelling, in the hotel or in the stadium. “The idea,” said CONMEBOL General Secretary Gonzalo Belloso to Radio La Red in Argentina, “is that the teams can enter other countries in a secure and controlled manner, play the match and then leave, all in less than 72 hours.”
With the restart of continental competition just six and a half weeks away, there is a powerful incentive to get the ball rolling in domestic leagues. So far, the only national league up and running in South America is that of Paraguay, a country which has suffered just 61 coronavirus deaths, and where three rounds have already been played since the restart.
Clubs in Argentina can start training from Monday, the Ecuadorian league hopes to resume the following Saturday, with Chile and maybe Colombia not far behind. And three more leagues get going this weekend — Uruguay, Brazil and Peru.
There is a striking contrast between the three. Uruguay has been one of the continent’s main success stories. True, it has the smallest population (3.5 million) in South America, and Montevideo is the only major city. Even so, a total of just 37 coronavirus deaths is a noteworthy achievement, and if any country has earned the right to have football back it is Uruguay. An added attraction is Sunday’s clash between the country’s historic big two, Penarol and Nacional.
Brazil, on the other hand, has not been able to bring the virus under control. The death toll continues to rise by over a thousand a day, and will certainly reach 100,000 at the weekend — a tragic figure to coincide with the start of the Brazilian Championship. Regional football had already returned in Brazil, with Rio de Janeiro, one of the worst affected cities, controversially staging matches as early as mid-June. But this is the start of the national league — and in a country this size, there may be logistical problems faced by teams as they attempt to travel to and from games.
This is a problem that Peru will not face. In proportional terms, Peru has done even worse than Brazil, with a death toll over 20,000 from a population of 33 million. The solution found in Peru has been to stage the entire competition in the capital city of Lima. Of the 20 teams in the first division, just seven come from Lima and the neighbouring port of Callao. All the others have been obliged to move to the capital, surrendering the home advantage afforded by conditions such as altitude.
The thinking is obvious. This way the players are restricted to the hotel, the training ground and the stadium. Players from two of the highland clubs, Sport Huancayo and reigning champions Binacional, have recently tested positive for the virus. In the case of Binacional, as many as nine cases have been reported. Though the games get underway on Friday night, Binacional’s match against Alianza Lima, set for Sunday, may well have to be postponed.
All of which is further proof that the path of football in times of coronavirus never did run smooth.