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World Cup Qualifier Halted So That Four Premier League Players Can Be Deported

Health staff members argue with head coach of Argentina Lionel Scaloni and players of Brazil and Argentina during a match.
Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

The men’s national soccer teams of Brazil and Argentina met at an echoey and mostly empty Arena Corinthians in São Paolo Sunday for a scheduled World Cup qualifier. The stadium was echoey and mostly empty for this match between the fiercest of rivals because Brazil, despite many outward indicators, is still at least observing some level of caution regarding the ongoing pandemic. Accordingly, Brazil’s pandemic restrictions require that individuals traveling into the country from certain other countries must quarantine for 14 days before being loosed upon society, in order to ensure they are not carriers of the ultra-scary delta variant. This restriction would naturally include players recently arriving on international breaks from their club teams—players who might, for example, wish to participate in any soccer matches of tremendous national significance.

That restriction would, in a less coy way of phrasing it, present an urgent challenge for at least four players traveling from England—one of the nations on Brazil’s list of hot spots—and hoping to suit up in Sunday’s match for visiting Argentina. Alejandro Domínguez, the president of CONMEBOL, the governing soccer body, greenlit the participation of those four players—Emiliano Martínez, Cristian Romero, Gio Lo Celso, and Emiliano Buendía—ahead of the match. If it seems to you like this sort of decision should perhaps be above the pay-grade of the president of CONMEBOL, or that there’s something extremely busted and inappropriate-seeming about a soccer honcho not just threatening Brazil with a forfeit if the four Argentinians weren’t allowed to play but attempting to override a sovereign nation’s pandemic protocols, it is probably because it is very obviously all of those things. This is not how this stuff is supposed to work!

Things ratcheted up from there: Just hours ahead of the match’s scheduled start time, Anvisa, Brazil’s health regulator, issued notice that, according to its rules and findings, the four players were to be quite literally deported from the country.

“Anvisa considers the situation a serious health risk and so has asked local health authorities to determine the immediate quarantine of the players, who are stopped from participating in any activity and should be prevented from remaining on Brazilian soil.”

ESPN

CONMEBOL held firm, pointing to a 72-hour health screening bubble in the federation’s rules which is intended, somewhat foolishly, to circumvent and obviate the need for a standard period of quarantine. At any rate, the four players had not been deported by the start of the match, and so the teams suited up and headed out to the pitch for some lightly attended but hotly contested qualifying action. That is when all hell broke loose:

Health workers and armed Brazilian police halted the match just minutes in, in order to enforce Anvisa’s ruling and detain and remove the four Premier League players. Soccer fans are used to scenes on the pitch, and in fact in many cases tune in hoping to catch some of these scenes, perhaps even those of the absolute variety. But health workers shutting down an in-process match in order to detain players who’ve fabricated information on immigration forms and broken quarantine attains a type and severity of Absolute Scene-age that frankly has never been anticipated by any of the scenes classification systems.

This is some serious theater: It cannot have been a mystery where La Albiceleste were hiding their players in the lead up to Sunday’s tilt—it seems like the choice to wait until five minutes into play and then bring the match to a screeching halt must’ve been about ambushing and embarrassing Argentina and the rule-flouting players. Brazil, missing nine key players for the match due to European clubs being cautious about restrictions on travel to and from South America, was not prepared to have its six-point lead in World Cup qualifying squished by an opponent who was willing to play things a little faster and a lot looser. Argentina refused to bend on playing without all their dudes, and after a brief argument, their players left the pitch and the match was suspended. Scenes!