Just three weeks ago this column warned that, judging by the torrid experience of Brazil and the onset of colder weather, Argentine football should brace itself for a difficult winter under the spectre of a second wave of coronavirus infections. That reality is already upon us, forcing the authorities to introduce strict measures of restrictions which may prove too little, too late.
Prompted by a huge outbreak of cases in the past week – more than 100 in the top flight alone – the Argentine Football Association (AFA) has been moved to shift protocols back to those in place back in August, when the game was recently preparing to return following those long months of inaction due to the pandemic. Players are now obliged to use their personal vehicles to travel to training sessions and are unable to use shower facilities after either practices or games, while traditional team meetings the day before matches have also been prohibited. In certain institutions, such as Independiente, even stronger measures have been taken: team lunches and dressing rooms are off-limits, with squad members expected to arrive at and leave the club in their training apparel in a bid to reduce contact.
The Rojo have been one of the hardest hit by the recent growth in infections (which ran at a daily average of around 20,000 this past week). More than 10 players have been confirmed as positive and will miss tonight's crunch Avellaneda derby against Racing Club, while coach Julio César Falcioni and fitness trainer Gustavo Otero are also sidelined. Their city rivals go into the clash relatively unscathed, with only Ignacio Piatti returning a positive test in the build-up.
Banfield have also been ravaged by the virus with 12 players isolated, while Colón forward Luís 'Pulga' Rodríguez, arguably the star of the show so far in this Copa Liga Profesional will be absent at the weekend due to Covid. Most tragically, Patronato lost president Miguel Ángel Hollmann, who succumbed to the virus after more than two months in hospital.
At the same time, the sport and the Province of Buenos Aires scored a spectacular own goal midweek. Wednesday's Copa Argentina clash between River Plate and Atlético Tucumán was held in La Plata's Estadio Único, which is doubling up as a major vaccination centre, causing all appointments for the day to be cancelled. Dozens of people nevertheless turned up hoping to receive their jab, transforming the incident into a publicity nightmare for all involved despite protestations that all cancelled appointments had been duly announced and rescheduled ahead of time.
This week's football-related restrictions came shortly before new measures for the general public, including a curfew that will run from midnight to 6am and limits on certain indoor activities, which depending on one's point of view are either a hideous assault on civil liberties or else wholly insufficient to prevent the impending sanitary catastrophe. With barely a fortnight of autumn completed and vaccines being applied at a slow albeit steady rate, the outlook is bleak, but football is set to pull out all the stops to avoid yet another shutdown.
“It is impossible to stop the championship or suspend games, because there are no available dates [for rescheduling],” Lanús president and AFA director Nicolás Russo argued. “A year passed in which everybody was hit economically... We had 28,000 members and now only 9,500 pay their dues. Imagine stopping all that again. It's impossible.”
It is hard not to sympathise with cash-strapped clubs, most of which complied admirably with the previous restrictions despite the cost to bank balances. But it is hard not to think that complacency over Covid is not at least partially responsible for the current dilemma.
Independiente goalkeeper Sebastián Sosa, for example, played last weekend despite admitting he had compatible symptoms and subsequently tested positive; Carlos Tevez, meanwhile, was happy to share pictures of his daughter's lavish birthday party in his San Isidro home. It's not football's problem, but rather society's, is the phrase de mode in the AFA right now, referring to the massive number of infections nationwide. That is all too true, but if clubs, players and directors hope to keep the ball rolling they must find a way, as has occurred elsewhere, to isolate themselves and maintain distance and discipline, or else another lengthy, costly shutdown is inevitable.