MARTIN MAZUR / AIPS, BUENOS AIRES: From all the sad postcards of empty landmarks and deserted streets that COVID-19 is producing all around the world, Argentina added one that will be difficult to forget.
On Sunday, a referee knocked on the doors of Estadio Monumental, to see if anyone opened. Next to him, a van with the kit man of Atletico Tucuman waited, without any luck, to get clearance. River Plate stadium had been closed by the club, going against the decision of the AFA and the Argentinian Superliga to play behind closed doors.
“Following what is happening, and the fear that one of our Reserves player had symptoms compatible with COVID-19, later tested negative, River Plate has decided to cancel all activities and shut down the club to its members and employees. Professional football, the decision is not to play against Atletico Tucuman”, said a press release on Saturday night.

The news was received as a bomb for the Football Association authorities. Immediately, the promised with harsh sanctions, which led to the farce of Sunday: a notary public verifying that the referee and the visiting team were attempting to enter the stadium, and that River Plate did not open the doors for the first game of the Copa de la Superliga tournament. Yes, a tournament that was just kicking-off and that could have been easily postponed.

More than 30 journalists gathered to cover the farce. Trying to get the referee’s word in a mixed-zone scenario, the risk of exposure was high and unnecessary.
Six days ago, the column “Show must go on in South America, but until when?” explained how governments in South America were not taking serious and unified measures to deal with the COVID-19. Since it was declared a pandemia by the World Health Organization, things started to change. It is, despite the dreadful present, a reason to celebrate.

All major sports events were called off. Paraguay was the first country to close schools and restrict public life. Borders are now closed for non residents in Argentina, as a 30-day-flight restriction kicks off tomorrow. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, from mocking the virus and encouraging people to go out on manifestations favouring his government, ended up doing the test, apparently negative, and showing his face hidden behind a mask.

On a continental level, the Copa Libertadores was halted and the World Cup Qualifiers, suspended. Now it seems pure logic, but five days ago, the squads were announced, including, for instance, Argentina’s call-up of German Pezzella, two days before he tested positive for COVID-19 at Fiorentina. Having Juventus and Inter in quarantine also helped to understand that there are no superheroes in this story, but for the doctors that are fighting against an invisible and deadly enemy.


It was said in these lines that calling footballers from the risk zones for international fixtures was not a feasible option, as they, as human beings before stars, would also have to be quarantined for posing a risk to the community.

Now we see them, on their social media, cooking, playing with his children, training in their private gyms or dancing in their living rooms. It is a sign that the rest of the citizens were also needing. Knowing that all of us are in this together. And that irresponsible acts such as the likes of NBA’s Rudy Gobert or Atletico de Madrid’s Diego Costa, coughing to the journalists in the mixed zone at Anfield, are not a joke. There’s nothing to laugh about coronavirus, even if tasteless memes spread on social media as quickly as the virus itself in real life.

Football leagues in South America first attempted to play behind closed doors. The strategy appeared to be wait and see. And what they saw was not good, that’s why they are shutting down at least for a couple of weeks.

But there is an exception – the Argentinian Copa de la Superliga, Even if president Alberto Fernandez announced that schools were shutting down for 14 days and the borders were being closed, and all spectacles were suspended, this prohibition did not apply to football. Actually, the contrary. “If it is played behind closed doors, it poses no risk and it is also a good thing for the citizens, that will be unable to leave their homes. I hope that games can also be shown on TV for free, without paying a fee”, he said.

Dificult decision

But are footballers robots or immune, whose main mission is to entertain the people? No, they aren’t. And they have fear. For themselves and for their families. Which takes us back to River Plate and their brave decision.

Neither manager Marcelo Gallardo or the squad’s most eminent players made a statement. Now, they will have to face a tough call. Whether to continue their strike indefinitely, thus facing a potential disqualification, or to kneel to the government’s decision.

None of the other teams wanted to play the opening, but all of them had to. Captains forced to persuade their teammates to play regardless of their fear, their thoughts and their common sense.  “My daughters asked me in tears not to travel because I’m diabetic, but it seems that the business of the ball is more important than anything here”, scolded Atletico Tucuman keeper Christian Lucchetti. Complains came from Fabricio Coloccini, Christian Erbes, Nicolas Bertolo… even Diego Maradona. But they all played.

The iron fist of the Argentinian Football Association has left River as the first club punished by COVID-19.

Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO said in an inspiring speech: “You need to stop the transmission. You need to be fast and have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t react quickly. You need to be prepared. If you need to be right before you move, you will never be. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection”.

It will take a few weeks, or perhaps even less, to declare River as winners in the battle for common sense, having reacted in the way it was needed. And without regrets.