A ‘FRIENDLY’ VIRUS

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Enefiok Udo-Obong

By Enefiok Udo-Obong

With the global pandemic yet to loosen its grip on the populace and the numbers surging again in what seems to be a second wave of infections, life has not really returned to normal as we have always known it. Sports has tried to continue with some form of activities in many areas across the world with the athletes competing inside a bubble and fans banned from stadia. This artificial control is a way to control spread of infections. However it must be said that these measures are not fool proof.

The Asian Football Confederation revealed that five players from Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal and another from Qatar’s Al Duhail were found with the virus following tests on all teams taking part in the western region of the AFC championship tournament.

A Scottish FA statement confirmed that Stuart Armstrong test returned a positive result as they prepared for an international match. While all other members of the squad returned negative results, teammates Kieren Tierney and Ryan Christie – plus one physiotherapist and one masseur – were all deemed to have come in close contact with Armstrong and were told to self-isolate for 10 days.

Recently, Ukraine was forced into an emergency selection after the virus affected several members of their list. The European nation were forced to select 45-year-old Assistant Coach, Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, in their squad for the 7-1 thrashing against France after Covid-19 tore through the team.

Switzerland star, Xherdan Shaqiri, tested positive on national team duty and is out, the third Liverpool player to become infected. Two members of Italy’s under-21 national team tested positive. Poland’s manager is positive. An England-Scotland Under-19 friendly had to be abandoned at halftime when a coach tested positive.

A few weeks ago, local health authorities blocked Napoli from travelling to Turin to play Juventus due to a possible Covid-19 outbreak after two players, Piotr Zielinski and Eljif Elmas, tested positive. It was billed as one of the biggest clashes of the season and there is uncertainty about what will be the outcome of that decision. Napoli had played Genoa earlier with the players of the later team having 17 people test positive for Covid-19. Not surprisingly, their next game against Torino has been postponed.

In Brazil, 16 Flamengo players have tested positive. Superstars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe missed a few games because they were infected, as did several Paris Saint-Germain teammates. West Ham United manager David Moyes was banished for several Premier League games to quarantine.

Leander Schaerlaeckens, writing for Yahoo Sports says, “Clubs, and the FIFPro (players union), had understandable misgivings about releasing their players to the national teams for mere friendlies or South America’s needlessly long World Cup qualifying double round-robin — a bountiful source of income for its national federations but a slog for everyone involved. Many players will become infected as bubbles mix and circles intersect.

The argument has been made that players traveling for national team duty is not substantially different from clubs traveling continentally for competitions. But it is. Clubs form tight circles that have mostly kept out infections by testing and quarantining members who test positive. Their only real exposure comes at the hands of their opponents. But players going off to their respective national teams scramble all of that, creating extended exposure to members of other pods.

International soccer, even when played without fans, could quickly turn into a traveling super-spreader circus.”

It is even more worrisome that a lot of Nations, including Nigeria has sanctioned meaningless international friendlies during this pandemic. With the burden of players already heavy with jam packed fixture list, short season, continental championships at the end of the season and the psychological trauma of the virus, it is surprising that players are not given the opportunity to rest when there is one.

The increase in matches, especially international ones where travel by players is on individual basis increases the risk of virus spread and also more infection of players. A lot of European Teams are very well organized and create a very secure bubble in which players and officials have no contact with the outside world, but can the same be said of other countries? Especially in Africa and Asia or South America? Even these European countries are not fool proof. There was a reported case of Covid-19 protocol breach in the England camp last month with two of their most promising players dismissed from the team for failing to strictly obey the protocols. If that happened in Nigeria, would we expect the same kind of transparency and discipline? Or would we have waved it off with a meaningless vocal censure? Thereby putting the whole team at risk?

Truth is as long as the virus remains not fully understood, and a cure or vaccine not readily available, there must be strong will to curtail it and even this means making some sacrifices we need to. While we are all eager to watch and play football, or profit from its business, there are some things that remain totally unnecessary and a big risk to humanity at the moment. And meaningless ‘friendly’ matches I believe sit at the top of the list of those things.