A World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina, South America’s most successful football teams, was halted after minutes on Sunday after Brazilian health authorities took to the field during the game in an apparent dispute over coronavirus quarantine regulations.
In chaotic scenes in São Paulo, a group of Brazilian public health officials took the field minutes before the much-anticipated showdown and ordered the Argentine players off the field as officials from both sides allowed a small crowd into the stadium and a worldwide television audience struggled to understand what exactly happened. happened.
It concerned the status of four Argentine players, including three starters who play club football in the English Premier League. Under local regulations, foreign travelers who have spent the past 14 days in Britain must be quarantined upon arrival in Brazil.
Argentina arrived with four England-based players and started with three on Sunday. All the players had first traveled to Venezuela, where Argentina played a previous qualifying game last week, before arriving in Brazil three days ago.
In footage broadcast around the world, health officials and some Argentine players were involved in a brief altercation before the visiting team returned to the locker room. The discussions on the pitch ultimately involved officials from both teams and stars such as Lionel Messi and Neymar.
The referee of the match finally interrupted the game. Once Argentina retreated to the locker room, the Brazilian players waited on the pitch before starting an impromptu training session using half the pitch to entertain the stunned crowd. Meanwhile, a police column prepared to remove the Argentine players from the stadium.
The events threaten to further damage relations between FIFA, the football governing body and organization responsible for the World Cup, and Europe’s top clubs and leagues, which are embroiled in a dispute over the release of players for the qualifiers.
Several European leagues and teams had already made unilateral decisions to prevent their players from traveling to South America for World Cup qualifiers this month, complaining that they had no choice as the players would be forced to miss important league games if they did. done. Brazil missed nine players for the game against Argentina, and other countries were also hampered by the failure of clubs to release players.
Tottenham and Aston Villa of the Premier League did let their Argentines travel. 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 Buendía was a substitute.
The incident took place hours after Brazil’s health regulator, Anvisa, said four Argentine players had to isolate themselves and be unable to play in the match. Local news media had reported that the players involved had failed to report that they had been to Britain, an accusation the Argentine Football Federation denied.
It was unclear why Anvisa took no action before the game, as the Argentine team was in the country for three days and because the agency had previously said the four England-based Argentine players must isolate themselves and not participate in the matches at the stadium. .
“Anvisa considers the situation a serious health risk and has therefore asked the local health authorities to determine the immediate quarantine of the players, who will be stopped from participating in any activity and should be prevented from staying on Brazilian soil,” Anvisa said. in a statement.
Some Argentine players, including the captain, Messi, lingered in the tunnel area for several minutes after the game ended, as officials and players alike tried to make sense of the dispute. Finally, about an hour after the game was first interrupted, the regional soccer organization of South America, CONMEBOL, announced that the game had been cancelled.
CONMEBOL noted that the decision to abandon the match was the referee, but noted that FIFA had ultimate authority over the matches.
“The World Cup qualifiers are a FIFA competition,” CONMEBOL said in a statement on Twitter. “All decisions regarding organization and development are the exclusive competence of that institution.”
Lionel Scaloni, the Argentine coach, said in comments posted on the national team’s Twitter page that the team was not informed at any time that it could not draft the British players, and he questioned the timing of the health officials’ raid. “We wanted to play the game, the Brazilian players did too,” he said.
Claudio Tapia, the president of the Argentine Football Federation, disputed the accusation that one of the team’s players lied about their trip. He said Brazil’s health authorities had approved the rules under which the Argentina team had traveled to Brazil.
“You can’t talk about lies here, because there is health law under which all South American tournaments are played,” Tapia said. “The health authorities of each country approved a protocol that we fully adhere to.”
A Brazilian television commentator reached out to Anvisa’s head during the live broadcast of what should have been the first half of the match. The Anvisa official, Antonio Barra Torres, said the Argentine players had ignored instructions to remain in isolation pending deportation from the country because they failed to state that they had been in Britain.
“They moved into the stadium, went onto the pitch and there was a succession of non-compliances,” he said in comments published by Globo.
The interim president of the Brazilian Football Federation, Ednaldo Rodrigues, criticized the timing of the decision by health officials, saying the players could have been sent home afterwards.
“I feel sorry for all the sports fans who wanted to see the game on television,” Rodrigues told Brazil’s SporTV. “With all due respect to Anvisa, they could have solved this earlier and not waited for the game to start.”