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SPORTS | 21-03-2020 09:13

Argentina’s lower leagues will be hit hard by virus crisis

Cancellation is an inconvenience for Superliga clubs, but it may prove to be devastating for those hanging on in the lower leagues, deprived of even the modest incomes they rely on.

As is customary in any crisis, the speed of events which have overtaken Argentina due to the coronavirus outbreak can be overwhelming.

It is difficult to imagine that just one week ago the burning issue in football was whether River Plate were correct in unilaterally suspending their Copa Superliga opener against Atlético Tucumán in light of the pandemic; a moment to be looked back on almost with nostalgia as today the country awakes to mandatory quarantine in a bid to stop Covid-19’s spread.

The effects this will have on the game, particularly at the lower levels, and the country as a whole cannot yet be calculated.

“Football can be played behind closed doors, there wouldn’t be any problem,” President Alberto Fernández signalled on Sunday, while announcing the closure of schools and other uncompromising measures. “At this point I would love to see Argentines given the chance to watch games not on the premium system, but on free-to-air television.

“Since we are all going to stay at home, for us watching football games is a source of entertainment.”

It is undeniable that Fernández’s declarations have aged poorly in the intervening week. The president and his government, handed a situation almost impossible to manage judging by the extreme images flooding in from China, Italy, Spain, the United States and elsewhere, have attempted to cut a gradualist approach to containment, increasing controls gradually and heeding the advice of experts at every turn.

His comments on football, however, come across as tone-deaf; while it is true that millions of workers, most on wages dwarfed by the earnings of Superliga stars, have had to continue commuting on crowded public transport while players live a comparatively sheltered existence, it is hard not to sympathise with the challenges set out in an open letter released on Monday.

“We should not treat football as entertainment for those who have to remain isolated, all of us that work in football are human beings with children, parents, grandparents etc.” the missive read. “Allow us to isolate ourselves too and help reduce the virus’ spread, don’t let us be possible victims or carriers, a Roman circus for the enjoyment of others.”

The first weekend of Copa Superliga passed without incident, albeit in stadiums shorn of fans and with the exception of River, who followed through on their promise not to play and locked Atlético Tucumán and referee Germán Delfino out of the Monumental.

It will be the last for a while, however. On Tuesday the Tourism and Sports Ministry moved to stop the ball rolling, cancelling all sporting activity in the country. Be it Boca or River in Superliga or Claypole vs Deportivo Paraguayo down in the fifth-tier Primera D, for the foreseeable future there will be no action on our screens.

Any decision of this nature – as well as local football, the Copas Sudamericana and Libertadores have been postponed until at least May, while the South American World Cup qualifiers for March were also cancelled and June’s Copa América pushed back a whole year to 2021 – cannot be taken lightly. Indefinite suspension of activities promise to have a huge impact on every club in Argentina, as fans stop paying membership dues, turnstiles gather dust and debts mount up.

“Even if we have the television money, if we don’t have ticket, sponsorship and marketing income we are ruined,” an anonymous director told Clarín. “There are members who will stop paying. And that’s logical: we cannot charge for a service we aren’t providing.”

A measure that will be a huge inconvenience for Superliga clubs may well prove devastating in the lower leagues, deprived of even the modest incomes they rely on to pay playing staff and survive.

As Argentina settles into quarantine the question of when football will return seems marginal, trivial even. At some point, though, it will come back; whether the same can be said for those sides already struggling to keep their heads above water is impossible to answer.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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