COVID-19 Causes Calendar Chaos for CONMEBOL
The fifth and sixth matchdays of the South American 2022 World Cup qualifiers, scheduled for the March international window, have been postponed - to dates yet to be determined. The delay is just one of a number in the last year to threaten to send the South American Football Confederation's qualifier tournament into disarray. However, in Europe, football clubs have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
CONMEBOL recently announced the suspension of its up and coming qualifier matches on the 25/26th and 30th March, citing COVID-19 travel and quarantine restrictions as the cause. While coronavirus still rampages across most of the world, South America, and in particular Brazil, have struggled to manage infection rates and deaths. As such, numerous other nations have restricted travel to and from the beleaguered continent and imposed strict quarantine rules for those who do travel. With many South American internationals playing abroad, the tournament's integrity was jeopardised as players struggled to secure travel and obtain release from their respective clubs this March.
Sadly, this isn't the first time the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the qualifiers. Originally, the tournament was scheduled to kick-off in March 2020. But, the emergence of the new virus and its rapid spread saw FIFA and CONMEBOL agree to delay the competition's start date until September 2020, and then again until October 2020. The postponements saw the tournament's completion date moved backwards by three months to March 2022. Fortunately, match days 1 and 2 were successfully played out in October, followed by days 3 and 4 in November. However, the continued virus risk on the continent means that days 5 and 6 will need to be rescheduled.
Reportedly, in conjunction with CONMEBOL and member organisations, FIFA will reschedule the lost match days for later in the year, but that will not be an easy task. The next available window will be in May/June 2021. However, match days 7 and 8 are already scheduled for that window, and the postponed 2020 Copa America is due to start on June 12th and continues for one month. There is already precious little wriggle room in the international calendar for the rest of the year and into 2022 to bump planned matches. Indeed, a replacement window in January was already secured during the last wave of postponements to allow the tournament to be completed by March 2022 in time for the intercontinental play-offs in June. Finding room for the lost days will be tricky, to say the least.
Relief in Europe
The postponed March dates for the South American qualifiers is obviously good news for some European clubs. The opening matches of CONMEBOL's qualifiers may have been a success. Still, numerous international players were struck down with COVID while in South America, and many more were subject to quarantine when they returned home - something that European clubs have baulked against in 2021. They argue that not only are trips a risk to the health of players, officials and staff but, due to quarantine requirements on their return home, key players could also miss vital club matches. And so, with the virus situation in South America still dire and with tighter European quarantine restrictions in play, several top clubs in the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, and La Liga were already refusing to release their players to travel this March.
CONMEBOL's announcement will give those clubs temporary relief as they hang on to their players for a while. However, with another 14 match days to complete in South America, the story isn't over yet.
So, where does that leave the South American qualifiers? Four days out of eighteen have been played to date in one of the most competitive and challenging, and certainly the longest of the World Cup qualifier tournaments (ten national teams each play a home and away game against the other nine, resulting in eighteen rounds spread over more than two years). Brazil top the standings, having won all four of their games so far. Argentina is second with ten points, followed by Ecuador and Paraguay in third and fourth position, and Uruguay in fifth. The top four teams automatically qualify for the 2022 World Cup, while the fifth-placed team heads to the intercontinental play-offs for another chance to qualify.
With over a dozen match days left to play, the standings may change significantly. The fifth and sixth match days may have been postponed, but when they have been rescheduled, we can all look forward to some blockbuster matches between South American giants Brazil and Argentina and arch-rivals Argentina and Uruguay and Colombia and Brazil.
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