November 03, 2020

Rising Tensions Over Release of National Team Players

Football has had a rough year as the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the world. Matches and tournaments, from club to international level, have been cancelled and postponed as lockdowns and restrictions have come into force throughout the year. Domestic leagues have struggled to finish their seasons, regional tournaments and international competitions have barely kicked off. As a result, domestic and international football calendars have suffered a colossal concertina effect into 2021.

As matches and competitions pile up, room is running out next year for rescheduling games that aren't played over the final few months of this year. And, while everyone in the industry is keen to get football up and running again, the road to recovery is not yet free. The virus continues to wage its war and a second worldwide wave appears to be on the horizon. The race is on to finalise games and competitions. Clubs, leagues and national teams now find themselves pitted against one another as club and international calendars compete for time and, of course, the mandatory release of national team players during international breaks. All while trying to keep everyone safe.

Competing Interests

The final international breaks of the year are almost upon us. If the matches and tournaments rescheduled for those windows aren't played the ramifications for next year's calendar, not to mention the financial impact for teams and associations, are multifold.

However, the release of players based overseas to play for their home teams also presents multiple complications at club level. Currently, international travel increases the risk of infection, and the implications for players short and long term health could be significant. Additionally, clubs would need to cover losses in time and salaries during travel quarantine periods, and, if the worst should happen and players are infected, they would need to compensate salaries, cover medical costs and protect player incomes indefinitely. Losing multiple and crucial players to COVID would also put teams at a considerable disadvantage.

The competing anxieties between domestic and international bodies are causing substantial tension, and a headache for FIFA. Under current rules, FIFA is compelled to undertake disciplinary proceedings, including temporary bans on players who ignore release requests, and fines for clubs who don't release players for international duty.

Tackling the International Window

The biggest concern on the horizon is the South American round of World Cup qualifiers, due to kick off on October 8th and run to October 13th. The tournament has already suffered postponement and the continental federation, CONMEBOL, are keen to recall their national players from their overseas teams and get the competition underway. The qualifiers programme in South America is one of the longest of the six football confederations and, having pushed both this and the Copa America tournaments this year, CONMEBOL is already struggling to reschedule its games. If the contest is postponed again, the entire competition may have to be reformatted to reduce the number of games played, resulting in significant financial losses.

To get the South American qualifiers underway will require dozens of players in the European and North American domestic leagues to travel. However, with some CONMEBOL countries having some of the highest tallies of COVID-19 cases in the world, clubs and leagues are quite rightly concerned about releasing their players to make the journey. They argue that not only are trips risky, but the condensed timelines for testing procedures, considering the limited time between travel, training and matches, will not give reliable results. Without an accurate picture of potential infections among players, staff and officials, the possibility of infection rises. In addition, due to quarantine requirements, players could miss club games once they return.

Similar issues are being disputed in Europe as the 3rd and 4th match days for the UEFA Nations League approach, which would require a host footballers to fly back to the continent. Though Matchdays 1 and 2 were played successfully in September, the rate of virus infections is steadily on the rise across Europe.

With a genuine risk to personal safety, but the possibility of bans and other penalties, players and clubs are between a rock and a hard place. With their own scheduling and financial concerns, national teams and confederations are no better off. Clubs, associations and unions have, for weeks, been in round-the-clock talks with FIFA to try to find a resolution. To date, it is rumoured that FIFA will concede players rights to refuse the summons to play in exhibition or friendly matches. However, speculation indicates that FIFA will enforce release requirements for the first round of South America's World Cup qualification games and matches in Europe's Nations League.

Healing a Growing Rift

With a week to go before the qualifiers in South America begin, a rift between domestic and international football is in danger of spiralling. The stand-off shows no sign of abating with the top US football league, Major Soccer League refusing to send players to South America, and CONMEBOL president, Alejandro Dominguez, petitioning FIFA to enforce sanctions. And, whatever FIFA decides, the fallout could be spectacular if suitable solutions cannot be found to either guarantee the safety of players who travel, and to protect their rights not to, or to keep football playing and ease pressure on the calendar.

The decisions over the next few days could have far-reaching effects on the fast-approaching World Cup 2022 in Qatar.

Main Image: A.PAES/

Published: October 01, 2020
Last updated: November 03, 2020
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