Cristiano Ronaldo testing positive for the novel coronavirus has put the spotlight on international friendlies.
The superstar subjected himself to the risk of leaving the secure environment of his club in the middle of a global pandemic and going on international duty for a couple of games that have no real sporting significance.
Why are international friendlies being played in the middle of the season?
At a time when football associations around Europe continue to extract as much as they can from clubs and players, these friendlies remain one of the bigger bones of contention in the club-vs-country debate that rages in Europe every season.
UEFA has staged the Nations League tournament – a competition that has no real value and can only cause injuries to players and losses to clubs – at a critical moment when the sport is trying to survive in the midst of the pandemic.
How do these games make players more vulnerable to the virus?
The return of football was successful because most leagues created a bio-secure bubble to finish the 2019-20 season. It allowed players and clubs the protection of regular testing, along with minimal risk of coming in contact with the virus.
But now, with the restart of international football, a bio-secure bubble is no longer a feasible option considering the length and travel requirements.
When players are with their clubs, it’s easier to monitor their health and movements – and if a player does contract the virus, the clubs are better prepared to quarantine them and get them back into action.
International friendlies only complicate this situation further.
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So which players, clubs and leagues have been the worst hit?
Ronaldo caught the virus while on duty with the Portuguese national team. Several Liverpool players, such as the Senegalese Sadio Mane, Spaniard Thiago Alcantara, and Guinean Naby Keita too, caught the virus.
Two Serie A games were either abandoned or called off because of squads getting infected. On Monday, the Czech Republic announced a two-week suspension of all professional and amateur sport activities.
Last week, the 45-year-old former Ukrainian footballer Oleksandr Shovkovskiy sat in the stands and watched France demolish Ukraine 7-1 in an international friendly.
Usually he would have been with the staff as the goalkeeping coach, considering his retirement in 2016. But Shovkovskiy was forced to come out of retirement to be a back-up goalkeeper for Andriy Shevchenko’s team after Ukraine’s top three goalkeepers contracted the virus and were forced to sit out.
The effect of coronavirus isn’t just limited to players who contract the virus but also extends to teammates, coaches, and other matchday staff.
Manchester United’s Portuguese star Bruno Fernandes may miss crucial games against Newcastle United, Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea, and RB Leipzig because he was in contact with Ronaldo.
With manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer already under tremendous pressure, losing one of his best players for a crucial four-match period might affect a club like United – especially considering that a few adverse results will be because of some meaningless friendlies.
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What do club managers think about friendlies?
Before the international break, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had spoken about the lack of control clubs have when players leave for friendlies. Considering that players spend most of their professional careers with clubs, it was a fair question asked by the German.
“I don’t want to sound disrespectful about how other countries are doing it but this is the place that we know and we know how we are dealing with it,” said Klopp, according to Sky Sports.
“I am slightly concerned because it is difficult to be in contact with all FAs (football associations) all over the world. As a football club you are pretty alone in these moments; we send the players away and then we have another challenge because we have to play a Premier League game on a Saturday after they (players) have travelled from, maybe Peru, on the Thursday or Friday.”
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, who had himself tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the year, was also sceptical of whether international associations would hold up their end of the bargain when it came to protecting players.
“Obviously when everybody starts to fly away to very different countries, I think at the moment it is a little bit of an experience and we don’t know what the outcome is. We want to believe that they want to follow a lot of things that are implemented and are working well, so fingers crossed that we don’t get any bad news.”
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