On the same weekend that Brazil reached the shameful milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths and 3 million cases, the country kicked off its 2020 national football championship, with 60 clubs in three divisions zipping all over the country to play in empty stadiums.
After the arrival of the coronavirus on Brazilian shores, the 2020 football season was always going to be problematic, with clubs’ revenue severely jeopardized by the four-month stoppage and the lack of paying customers at matches. But after just one weekend of fixtures, we have seen just how disorganized this year’s league will be, with only six out of ten top-flight games going ahead, and one match postponed 15 minutes before kick-off, after news that the home team had nine players infected with Covid-19.
Still, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) is adamant that the competition will continue, with an additional 60 clubs returning to action in September as the fourth division begins.
Taking players and coaching staff into account, the return of football means that well over 3,000 individuals are flying all over the country and mixing with other groups, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage in Brazil, with no imminent signs of slowing down.
Despite the postponement of games and new cases among players, the CBF claims that its sanitary protocols are as safe as possible. “There is nothing that is risk-free. We have worked hard, exhaustively, in debates with more than 140 doctors, to set up a structure close to what we consider ideal. […] Games in which we had problems with dates or outsourced lab tests, of course, we suspended,” said CBF Secretary-General Walter Feldman, speaking to UOL.
Five outbreaks on opening weekend
On Sunday afternoon, football club São Paulo visited the Center-West city of Goiânia to take on Goiás in their league opener. However, with the away side on the pitch and ready to play, the referee called the came off, as it had been revealed ten Goiás players had tested positive for Covid-19, including eight of the team’s starting 11.
The CBF, in turn, didn’t lift a finger, and Goiás had to obtain a court order in order to postpone the match. Having found out earlier that afternoon that its squad members had tested positive, Goiás scrambled around for youth players to be made available to play, just in case the game went ahead. Reserve goalkeeper Matheus was with his family enjoying a Father’s Day lunch in the countryside when he was called in to beef up Goiás’s matchday squad. He and several other youth players had not been tested for Covid-19.
National team right-back Daniel Alves, who plays for São Paulo, expressed his anger and dismay on social media. “I would like to say it is inadmissible what happened today. […] Life is the most important [value], so the rest makes no sense,” he said, in an Instagram post.
The São Paulo delegation flew home on a chartered plane, in order to diminish the risk of contagion. But such precautions are a luxury only some elite clubs can afford. According to Globoesporte reporter Pedro Alves, none of the ten third-division sides who played away from home this weekend received their Covid-19 test results before traveling, putting scores of people in danger.
The previous day, Goiás’s city rivals Vila Nova took a commercial flight to the city of Manaus for their first game of the third division season. Upon touching down in the Amazonas state capital, they received the news that two of their players had tested positive for coronavirus. Still, their match against Manaus FC went ahead, though one of the assistant referees had to be replaced at the last minute, after he had also tested positive for Covid-19.
Elsewhere in the third tier of Brazilian football, the match between Treze and Imperatriz was canceled after 12 of the away side’s 19-man squad tested positive. Again, they only received these results after embarking on an odyssey of buses and planes to reach the match. Their 23-hour long trip involved two flights and two coaches, despite the fact the clubs are based only 1,200 kilometers away from each other. Furthermore, at least a dozen of the traveling party were already infected with Covid-19.
The decision to cancel matches was reasonably arbitrary. Southern Brazilian sides Brusque and Ypiranga took the field despite both sides having infected players — one for the home side and five for the visitors. Brusque won 2-1.
In the second division, recently relegated club CSA had nine infected players but were forced to play their season opener against Guarani. They won 1-0.
On Tuesday morning, CSA announced that a total of 18 players had contracted Covid-19, and their match against Chapecoense on Wednesday has been postponed.
Despite this disarray, the CBF has deemed the first round of matches a success. “[Postponements] were particular cases out of 25 Brazilian championship games that went ahead this weekend. Overall it was positive,” said Secretary-General Mr. Feldman. Nevertheless, the football association was forced to make changes to its Covid-19 protocol going forward.
While European leagues have successfully returned by testing all squad members and implanting “bubbles” among their first-team staff, Brazilian clubs were only testing a portion of their players each time. As of next Friday, all registered footballers will be tested before every game. However, there are matches scheduled for this evening, Wednesday, and Thursday, which will follow the old protocol.
The CBF said it is committed to releasing the results as early as possible — at least 24 hours before kick-off for home teams, and 12 hours before travel for away sides. Tests, which were previously all carried out by the renowned Hospital Albert Einstein in São Paulo, may now be performed by local laboratories.
“The CBF reaffirms its commitment to hold the competitions scheduled on its calendar, always prioritizing the health of all those who are a part of football,” said the confederation, in an official statement.