“We cannot take it anymore.”
After more than 90 days of coronavirus lockdown no few Argentines – particularly in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area where controls continue at their most stringent – can sympathise with River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo's sentiments. Three months is a long time for any person to stay inactive, let alone a professional footballer whose livelihood depends on his or her physical well-being. The question remains, though: if conditions are not apt even for the runners of the Palermo woods, how can players return to activity?
Gallardo's latest intervention on the subject of training came at a time when the 'runners,' as they are collectively and not altogether flatteringly referred to in the Argentine media's shorthand, have made front-page news. No sooner had Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta lifted the long-standing restrictions on exercise than they were out in droves, pounding the tarmac around the city's most picturesque spots and causing an outburst of anxiety that perhaps was exaggerated.
The images of hundreds of keep-fit enthusiasts bursting out simultaneously was certainly unwelcome in a city that has experienced an increase in Covid-19 cases which, while paling in comparison to other world urban centres, still provokes justifiable concern among the teams of politicians and scientists charged with keeping infection levels down.
A compromise was reached this week: the runners will still be able to lace up their trainers, but only every other day, with exercise restricted depending on whether the last digit of one's identity document reads odd or even. All of which is to reiterate that the restart of normal life in Buenos Aires and beyond is still a sensitive issue. Gallardo's comments were bound to cause a stir.
“Everything is very difficult due to the uncertainty it generates and it is getting harder and harder to accept it,” the River boss fired off to Radio La Red this week. “I want to get back to my activity... I don't think anything will change in August, unless there is pressure to start up in August and compete in September, I doubt that will happen.”
He wasn’t stopping there. “I am hearing word that this cannot go on. The issue should have been at least discussed by now and not left in total uncertainty by the home of our football,” said Gallardo. “I would like the health minister to explain how an industry with 500 employees can operate but a reduced group of footballers following protocol cannot train.”
Said home, the Argentine Football Association (AFA), which has kept largely silent on the possibility of resuming the sport, did not delay in offering Gallardo a response.
“Why didn't he tell the President Alberto Fernández, who is his new friend, to send the health minister down to give us the OK to come back,” an unnamed AFA official told Olé. “If you want to attack at least don't contradict yourself. And if you want to go into politics become a director. Doesn't River have [Rodolfo] D'Onofrio to come and talk with us?” The director's words were echoed by several club presidents and representatives across the Primera, many of whom pointed that it was River who refused to play in the first place before the Copa Superliga was cancelled, a point also mentioned by the aforementioned health minister, Ginés González García, in his response.
Whether one agrees or not with Gallardo's plea, the blanket assault that has followed lays bare one of Argentine football's most serious failings. Dissenting voices are simply not tolerated, least of all from a coach who time and again has proved he is not afraid to veer from the AFA hymn sheet. The same club presidents who jeer El Muñeco for considering how football could return also savaged River back in March for declining to turn up to take on Atlético Tucumán. The roles may be reversed, but the line-up is the same: one man willing to speak his mind amid a herd of braying critics toeing the party line. He might be wrong on this occasion, and the health of players and families of course must come first: but if a few more people were willing to speak out and not merely raise their hands when ordered to at AFA committee meetings a great many of the game's ills might just have a chance of being solved.