Premier League can’t be allowed to undermine World Cup qualifiers… and they probably won’t

On the surface, it’s classic club vs. country fare. The Premier League voted unanimously on Tuesday not to release players for international duty if they are playing matches in what the United Kingdom considers “red list” countries during next month’s break.

Premier League won’t release players for World Cup qualifying

The “red list” comprises more than 50 countries that the United Kingdom considers to be at elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission. If you enter the UK and have traveled to one of those countries in the previous 10 days, you need to spend another 10 days isolated in a special quarantine hotel.

It means that roughly 60 players from 19 Premier League clubs are going to be affected: among them, big names like Man City’s Gabriel Jesus and the Liverpool trio of Alisson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino. The Premier League notes how the enforced 10-day quarantine would not only mean players would miss at least two league matches but, because they’ll be stuck away in a hotel unable to train, it will also impact their fitness and mental health.

On the flip side, this wreaks havoc with World Cup qualifiers not just in South America, where virtually the whole continent is on the “red list,” but in Asia and Africa as well, and this is where sport meets politics.

The release of international players is governed by an agreement struck between FIFA, national associations and clubs. Essentially, to avoid players being shuttled all around the globe at different times, all parties agreed to limit internationals to certain pre-agreed dates. In exchange, clubs agreed to release players during those periods for a set number of days.

The problem is that the 10-day quarantine requirement for “red list” countries isn’t a football rule. It’s set by the UK government on grounds of public health and so clubs who, as they often like to remind us, pay these players’ salaries, say it’s unfair that they should lose their players for, in practical terms, almost a month. Especially when there’s another international break coming up in October and one more in November.

They have a point, but then so do the affected countries because World Cup qualification really matters, and understandably so. Last time around, Argentina squeaked into the World Cup by just two points (in an 18-game schedule), Chile missed out by a point and Paraguay by two. There are nine points at stake in these three games.

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Some will say it’s all about clubs and money, and the big leagues in Europe, and the rest doesn’t matter. Fine. Yet, for now at least, they’re not in charge. For now at least, we’re committed — or we say we’re committed — to football being about more than inconveniencing a bunch of Premier League teams. Besides, there’s an agreement in place to which the clubs and leagues have agreed. Sure, it made before the pandemic; fine. And they already got an exemption during the last international break, in March. They can’t expect another one.

That ethical conundrum is pretty black and white: you either respect the rules you agreed to and show some solidarity with the rest of the world, or you say “we’re paying the bills, these are exceptional circumstances, suck it up.” And if it’s the latter, it’s safe to say the national associations who are affected will complain to FIFA, who will go over their own rules and, if they choose to apply them, will ban the players for a couple of club matches.

Maybe I’m naive, but I refuse to believe it will come to that. In fact, I’m pretty sure the parties involved will reach a deal and this whole thing is one big exercise in posturing.

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First and foremost, let’s not forget who is affected here: the players. They may be loyal to their clubs, but they also want to represent their nations. If they didn’t, they’d simply turn down international call-ups. Brazil, for example, play Argentina on Sept. 5 — you’re not going to tell me that it doesn’t matter to someone like Alisson?

Beyond that, there is a convenient “bad guy” in all this: the UK government. Not that it’s bad to look out for public health, but public perception matters too. You don’t look very clever if you put, say, Chile on the red list, when they have a higher vaccination rate than the UK and when the UK recorded more than 25 times as many cases (population-adjusted) yesterday: 30,838 versus 380. In fact, you simply come across as mean and self-serving, especially when it was less than two months ago that the UK government was granting all sorts of quarantine and test exemptions to players and coaches at the European championships.

The Premier League and England’s Football Association can simply point to that and say “Hey, it’s not us, it’s the government.” And while the government has likely been pretty busy with other matters (like Afghanistan), you imagine they can focus on this too. Especially since, looming in the background, is the joint Great Britain and Ireland bid for the 2030 World Cup.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his country has “a very good case” (despite the chaos and violence that marred the Euro 2020 final at Wembley). That’s great, but folks might not want to vote for you if you don’t show some flexibility and stop them from putting out their best possible national team in what, for them, is the biggest deal in the sport: the World Cup.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino knows this, too. That’s why on Wednesday he wrote to Johnson, asking for exemptions similar to those handed out at the Euros and, at the same time, talking about the importance of solidarity and how, in particular, the big clubs in the big leagues could “share the responsibility” to protect the integrity of competitions around the world, like the World Cup.

Call me naive, but I’m confident that these two forces — the players who want to play and the many interests who don’t want to hurt Britain and Ireland’s World Cup 2030 bid — will exert enough pressure for a compromise here. Maybe it will be a quarantine exemption in exchange for daily testing, both while on international duty and when they return. Maybe it will be some sort of “quarantine light” upon their return, where they only leave to train and play games. Maybe it will also involve some limitations while on international duty.

Maybe, if all else fails, clubs will themselves reach a compromise with the national teams, perhaps playing only the first two games of the break and then, if the quarantine is enforced, missing just one game upon their return. And maybe that’s the plan all along: to muscle flex and act all intransigent now, only to relent later on. It’s the oldest trick in the book: create a problem and then show how kind and flexible you are by solving it later.

I’d hate to be wrong. Hundreds of millions of fans around the world, if not billions, deserve better than this.