Throughout these long months of pandemic, one has become accustomed to the sensation of tip-toeing forward a step, only to immediately take a brisk two paces in the opposite direction. This past week proved no exception, at least in the world of football. Argentine fans were able to celebrate the prospect of finally returning to the stadium, only to discover that there may not actually be any players on the pitch when they do so.
Let us first, then, get the good news out of the way. Almost 18 months to the day since the nation's iconic football venues last opened their doors to the public, a glimpse of light has appeared at the end of the tunnel. Coronavirus cases and test positivity rates have taken an encouraging drop in recent weeks, bolstered by the ongoing vaccination drive, while the fearsome Delta strain, while still a real concern, has yet to raise its ugly invisible head in significant numbers.
In that (for once) positive context, the government announced that Argentina's World Cup qualifier against Bolivia on September 9 in River Plate's Monumental would be open for business. Thirty percent of the ground will be made available for supporters, a move that follows in the footsteps of several of the nation's neighbours, who have begun to welcome spectators back in the stands. “The idea is for crowds to return to the local championship and the rest of sport,” Tourism and Sport Minister Matías Lammens signalled. “If this pilot scheme works, the plan is for fans to be back in the stadiums by September 30, under the same conditions.”
Those of us used to casting a cynical eye over the comings and goings of the Primera might well be sceptical over the efficiency of these conditions. The prospect of Boca's La 12 barra or River's Borrachos del Tablón lining up patiently with their vaccination cards and negative swab tests in hand is almost certainly a pipe dream. Still, we can only welcome this step towards normality, in a wholly positive sanitary context. But if fans are one part of the football equation, Argentina might well be missing another important piece of the jigsaw puzzle: the players themselves.
The local optimism has apparently escaped the attention of most countries on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Despite suffering far more cases than most South American countries right now as a result of the Delta strain, Europe's football giants have one by one forbidden their players from travelling home to countries on increasingly arbitrary 'red lists' – Chile, for example, with just under 400 confirmed infections on Wednesday, is a no-go for the United Kingdom, while the United States, which on the same day clocked 170,000 positives, suffers no such restrictions – meaning that Argentina and their CONMEBOL rivals for now will be without their England, Spain, Italy and Portugal-based stars, more than 20 individuals in the Copa América champion's case.
A similar situation arose back in March, when World Cup qualifying was shelved as a result. This does not seem to be an option now though, with time fast running out before the finals kick off next year. If FIFA's rather timid intervention in the matter fails to prosper, we might well see an Albiceleste squad cobbled together from the few European countries who (as of yet) have not banned travel – a list that thankfully at least includes Lionel Messi's new home in France – and an assortment of players called up from Mexico, Brazil, the United States and the local league. There is still ample time for more twists in this tale, but it still represents a nasty fall back down to earth for Argentina fans after the elation of their Copa triumph and the latest advances in the fight against the pandemic, and a reminder that we are going to continue living under its shadow for quite some time yet.