Soccer’s international break often brings news of the so-called FIFA virus, where players suffer injuries with their national teams due to the ridiculous overexertion demanded of their bodies by the modern game. Many of the reports coming from the current international break bring news of a less metaphorical FIFA virus, in the form of the growing wave of European-based players testing positive for the coronavirus. Unlike the more common FIFA virus, which only lasts a couple weeks, this one doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
Probably the most bizarre result of the spate of coronavirus positives can be seen in yesterday’s France-Ukraine friendly—not in the result (a 7–1 France win), or even on the pitch, but rather on the sideline. On Ukraine’s bench sat Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, the national team’s 45-year-old goalkeeping coach, who was forced to serve as the team’s emergency backup after three of the squad’s keepers had recently tested positive for COVID-19. Just before embarking for France, Shakhtar Donetsk keeper Andriy Pyatov received his positive test result. Pyatov’s and teammate Taras Stepanenko’s positive tests meant the entire Shakhtar team went into quarantine, which robbed the Ukraine national team of five other players who had been called into the squad. On Tuesday, Ukraine then announced that keepers Andriy Lunin and Yuriy Pankiv had also tested positive while in the camp. That left the team with just one healthy keeper, Georgiy Bushchan, and so Shovkovskiy had to suit up, four years after retiring from the sport.
Ukraine wasn’t the only team burned by positive coronavirus tests. Their opponents, France, had already sent full back Leo Dubois and striker Odsonne Edouard home after the pair tested positive. Scotland’s Stuart Armstrong tested negative upon arrival to the Scottish camp from his club, Southampton, but then tested positive on Wednesday. The Scottish FA sent Armstrong home and did the same with teammates Kieran Tierney, of Arsenal, and Ryan Christie, of Celtic, who had been in close contact with Armstrong.
Inter had a double whammy when Slovakian center back Milan Skriniar and Italian U-21 international Alessandro Bastoni tested positive while with their respective national teams. In response to those results, Inter tested all of its players not on international duty, and turned up positives from Radja Nainggolan and Roberto Gagliardini. Cameroon announced today that they’d caught two infections when Ajax keeper André Onana and Mainz midfielder Pierre Kunde Malong tested positive. And all these are just the ones that I’ve noticed over the past few days.
It’s borderline insane that FIFA is even holding an international break right now. Successfully pulling off a sports season during a pandemic requires maintaining a delicate ecosystem where players and staff limit their potential exposures as much as possible. International breaks—which involve lots of people who’ve traveled from a variety of countries with no time to quarantine before they all get together to do something in extremely close quarters every day for hours at a time, with much of that time spent not wearing a mask, and who then compete two or three times against teams of similarly cosmopolitan composition—are like dumping poison into that delicate ecosystem. It would be hard to even imagine a scenario more prone to becoming an international superspreader event. And the positive coronavirus tests we’ve seen thus far this week are only the beginning, the ones that just happened to be caught on the front end. It would take only a few knock-on infections from any of the dozen or so cases mentioned above to seed an outbreak that could reach across Europe. There is no good reason to risk all that for some largely irrelevant friendlies and Nations League matches.
The problem isn’t limited to international play, either. Big-league European soccer did a great job of preventing and containing COVID-19 outbreaks during the 2019–20 season restart over the summer, but already we’re seeing the previously effective system begin to strain. This past weekend, Italy’s Serie A failed to hold two matches that had been on the schedule due to coronavirus results. Genoa-Torino, which had been scheduled for last Saturday, was postponed when 15 Genoa players tested positive prior to gameday. More controversially, Sunday’s big Juventus-Napoli match never kicked off after Napoli refused to travel to Turin because two Napoli players tested positive for the coronavirus. Napoli asked the league to postpone the match, but the league refused, citing its protocol that a team can only request a postponement if at least 10 players test positive for the virus. Napoli contested this, arguing that its local health authorities had forbid the team from traveling without first adhering to a period of isolation, but the club’s justification has thus far fallen on deaf ears. Napoli now risks forfeiting the match and/or getting docked points.
And it’s bad everywhere. On Monday, the Czech Republic announced a two-week suspension of all professional and amateur sporting events nationwide in light of the country’s ballooning COVID-19 cases. The Premier League has been releasing weekly aggregate reports about its coronavirus testing results. The first three rounds turned up a total of 10 positives. The most recent two rounds have resulted in 19 total positives.
Dutch second-division club NAC Breda caught six infections in its locker room ahead of last weekend’s match, which forced the Netherlands’ third COVID postponement of the season. NAC’s sporting director, Mattijs Manders, spoke about the difficulties of staying on top of this, even when doing everything by the book, in comments to Dutch paper De Telegraaf:
“We are very surprised by the positive tests. For some time now, the standard in the office has been to work from home as much as possible and to strictly observe all protocols. We also strictly follow the regulations at the training complex. For example, only tested persons enter the complex, suppliers must register and wear masks and no one gets involved in the group. We invest a lot of time with the entire organization in drafting and further refining the protocols. The virus shows that when you do not expect it, it can beat around you.”
It’s impossible to tease out any definitive answers or trends from just a few dozen positive tests from a few weeks of top-level play in European soccer, but the look of it is worrying. European soccer did so well over the summer, and those leagues’ successes offered hope that a safe, closer-to-normal life was possible in the time of coronavirus as long as you did the smart things. Now, those same protocols that worked so well a couple months ago are proving less effective, and it looks like we could be headed right back to where we were in the spring, where it is risky to do most anything, no matter how careful you are.
What is clear about the seemingly changing fortunes of European soccer over the past year is that ultimately all of this is at the mercy of the virus itself. If for whatever reason the coronavirus becomes easier to catch and spread, then it will shut things down and there won’t be much anyone can do. If, as has more or less been the case over the summer, the contagion is relatively manageable, then with careful protocols and diligent adherence to them, we can enjoy things like professional sports. But at the very least the powers that be shouldn’t make it easier for COVID-19 to ruin the rare bit of respite we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy so far in the form of these sports leagues. Make COVID-19 take sports from us, don’t just give it away.