It was the standout fixture of the international break: Brazil versus Argentina in Sao Paulo, a World Cup qualifier and a clasico with a fresh scent of revenge.
It was to be the first time Lionel Messi led his country against Brazil as reigning champions, Argentina having beaten Brazil in the Copa America final in July. It was Neymar against Messi, friends recently reunited as club colleagues at Paris Saint-Germain. It was a chance for some of Brazil’s new Olympic champions to take on their country’s greatest rival.
It turned very quickly into a bewildering farce, the match suspended after five minutes, the score 0-0, by referee Jesus Valenzuela after Brazilian state health officials and police, clutching documents, came on to the pitch demanding that three Argentina players in action - Emiliano Martinez, Cristian Romero and Gio Lo Celso, plus another sitting among the substitutes, Emiliano Buendia - be removed and deported from the country for infringing Covid-19 rules.
The reaction, from players, match officials, and the governing body of South American football, Conmebol, was of utter disbelief. The millions viewing on television around the world were confused. The match did not resume, and by the end of the night the entire Argentina squad were flying back to Buenos Aires, where they have a qualifier against Bolivia on Thursday.
As the dust settled, Fifa president Gianni Infantino called the incidents “crazy”. His organisation will now study reports of what happened and take a decision on whether either the Brazilian or Argentine federations should be penalised, and if or when the game should be replayed.
The Argentines remain indignant and believe there are grounds to demand that three points, and a default 3-0 victory, be awarded to them. They argue that they obeyed agreed Conmebol protocols on public health, which allowed all their footballers to travel in and out of Brazil without quarantine, according to sport-specific protocols.
Standard restrictions in Brazil, where over half a million lives have been lost to coronavirus, state that anybody arriving there who has been in certain countries, including the United Kingdom, in the previous 14 days must quarantine for 14 days. Martinez, the goalkeeper, and Buendia are Aston Villa players; Lo Celso and Romero are with Tottenham Hotspur. They were all in England on the last weekend in August.
According to Anvisa, the Brazilian public health body, some members of the Argentina squad who arrived in Brazil last Friday had not correctly declared where they had spent the previous 14 days. Anvisa say officials and police went to the Argentina team hotel in Sao Paulo to give notice of their concerns, and to insist the four UK-based players were subject to normal quarantine rules. By then the Argentina squad were on their way to the stadium.
Amid the confusion, after the match had been suspended, Messi posed an obvious question. “We’ve been here three days and they wait until the match starts to come to us,” said an angry Messi. “Why didn’t they tell us earlier?”
Anvisa maintain the Argentinians hid information from them. A Fernando Batista was later named by Brazilian media as having signed off and submitted documents which omitted the correct details about which countries the players had been in the two-week period up until last Friday. There was further confusion when Fernando Batista, the Argentina under-20 coach, denied he had anything to do with the senior squad’s administrative tasks.
“To suggest there have been lies told is wrong,” said Claudio Tapia, president of the Argentina Football Association (AFA). “There are health rules under which all the matches on the Fifa schedule are played, and every country’s health authority has approved them. We observed them. We take the utmost care of our players and make sure they go back to their clubs in the best condition.”
In the case of Martinez and Buendia, that will be after a 10 stop-off in Croatia, where the two Villa players flew Monday to spend the prescribed period of quarantine set by UK health authorities for travellers who have been in Brazil or Argentina in the previous 10 days. Lo Celso and Romero have remained in Argentina, and will not be available for Spurs until the weekend of September 18.
Premier League clubs last month sought to prevent their South American players taking part in this international break because of the UK quarantine rules. Some, like Villa, gave permission.
No Premier League players reported for duty with Brazil, where some media claimed, before Sunday’s chaotic events, Argentina would therefore start with an unfair advantage because they could call on their England-based footballers while Brazil were without the likes of Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Everton’s Richarlison.