After almost five months away, Argentine football's stars are finally preparing to shed the paunch and unwelcome kilos as they head back to training. Monday will see the end of prohibitions on practices, although the measure is less a sign that the coronavirus pandemic is a thing of the past than an act of resignation that, despite the ravages of the illness, the everyday routine can no longer be suppressed in the name of public health.
To say that the government and Argentine Football Association (AFA) have reservations over the move is an understatement. Reported cases in Argentina continue to grow in an alarming fashion, with over 7,000 infections and almost 150 fatalities confirmed on Thursday alone. Ultimately it was pressure from outside forces, most notably CONMEBOL's decision to push ahead with the Copa Libertadores in September and the resumption of activities across South America – Argentina was the only remaining nation in the region to hold out on sanctioning at least some form of training exercises – that pushed those in charge to relax strict lockdown regulations, with no little apprehension on what impact that may have in the coming weeks.
Indeed, the decision to clear all top-flight teams to return to training on August 10 surprised even AFA chief Claudio Tapia, who went into Wednesday's meeting with government representatives with rather more modest aspirations. “We had come here to get the teams involved in the Copa back,” Tapia admitted after the summit. “The other 19 teams were willing to start a week later but the government surprised us and, with a lot of goodwill, allowed all the clubs, if they are in a fit state to do so, to start training on Monday.”
The first warning signs over the scale of this challenge have already begun to appear. As with almost every league that has moved to re-open following this global catastrophe, the Liga Profesional de Fútbol will operate under a rigid testing protocol to avoid infected players spreading Covid-19 to their team-mates and families. But as early as last Wednesday uncertainty reigned over who exactly would be responsible for this prohibitively expensive safeguard. While the AFA set as an exclusive condition for the restart of club training sessions the presence of negative swab tests, it was then revealed that the governing body was only prepared to cover the cost of the less effective quick-acting tests – leaving the clubs themselves to front the costs of the equipment, roughly 6,000 pesos each for up to 50 players and staff and wait the 72 hours necessary to obtain laboratory results.
Corona and the Copa
The very prospect of continuing the Libertadores, the driving force behind this rushed return to activities, is also far from certain. Coronavirus has caused devastation across South America, with only Paraguay and Uruguay emerging relatively unscathed to date. Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia rank among the 10 most-affected countries in the entire world, while the virus has also caused acute public health crises in Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia.
It is hard to countenance a scenario where dozens of clubs will be safe to jet across the continent in little over a month when infections have proved near-impossible to avoid. As Health Minister Ginés Gonzalez García remarked: “Latin America right now is the epicentre of the pandemic, we know football is a passion that binds a lot of people in the region and that is exactly why we must be careful in planning its return.”
Argentina's clubs will continue to lobby CONMEBOL to push back that return date, while at the same time preparing for the inevitable. Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club, Tigre and Defensa y Justicia are likely to find themselves at a huge disadvantage less than 40 days from now when they take the pitch; but if health and safety protocols are not applied effectively on a national and continental level the consequences could go far beyond disappointing performances on the pitch.
As the nation takes its first tentative step towards normality in the game, any excitement or anticipation must be accompanied by the utmost care and responsibility from all involved.