KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Gianni Infantino has reminded his most blinkered and self-obsessed officials that the world is struggling to deal with a challenge more important than the next football match.

The president of world federation FIFA was speaking after an online council meeting at which the most pressing issue was coping with the disruption to the international calendar enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

South America’s CONMEBOL has called off this month’s World Cup qualifying ties out of concern that European clubs will refuse to release star players to avoid both the risk of being infected by coronavirus but also quarantine restrictions on their return.

Gianni Infantino . . . online from Zurich

African football associations have also protested that French clubs in particular are denying players release for the continent’s own upcoming preliminary matches.

They have done so as not only France but other European nations such as Germany, Italy and Spain have been ratcheting up travel restrictions amid fears of a third wave of infection and inevitable deaths.

FIFA council ratified a recent decision of the bureau – Infantino plus heads of the six regional confederations – to extend agreed exemptions to the regulations insisting that clubs must free up their players for major national team competitions.

Balancing act

One of Infantino’s presidential priorities is to maintain the balance between national team and club competitions.

He is only too well aware that World Cup qualifiers not only in South America but also across Asia have thrown off-balance by the pandemic-driven postponements. But, with FIFA now working in partnership with the World Health Organisation, he has no illusions about the significance of the wider perspective.

Infantino said: “We are living in a very difficult situation – especially in Europe but not only Europe – in regard to Covid-19. Travel is complicated, health is the priority and that’s why we relaxed our rules.

“We are in contact with many member associations and governments because we would like the national team games to go ahead as planned in March but we would like these games to ahead with the best possible squads.

“We understand the situation is delicate and that’s why we are calling on all parties – clubs,  players and leagues – to show understanding.

“National team football is very important for the vast majority of countries not only from the financial point of view but the spirit of a nation – if this can be done in a very safe environment.

‘Best conditions’

“We will see how many exemptions can be granted by governments and we hope these upcoming games will be played in the best conditions.”

Infantino is putting his faith in the worldwide roll-out of vaccination to provide the conditions for a return to footballing normal. He called for “solidarity” from European clubs but acknowledged that footballers were human beings who had their own concerns about unnecessary exposure to infection.

He added: “We understand we cannot force a player to go and play a match if that will put his health at risk and governments take decisions that have to be respected by FIFA and MAs so the situation is very challenging.

“We hope that over the next few months, with the roll-out of vaccinations, the situation will improve and we will find dates to play these postponed games in June or September or October or November or next year.”

Then, in November and December next year, Infantino expects to see the “best World Cup ever in Qatar.” This meant “a World Cup with full stadia.” He quoted the achievement of 30pc capacity in Qatari stadia for the Club World Cup earlier this year “in a safe environment.”

Vaccination need

Infantino concluded: “Vaccination has just started around the world and they are 95pc efficient so it is a question of a few months until everyone will have the opportunity to be vaccinated and we get rid of this Covid once and for all because we need to go back to some sort of normal life.

“At the moment we are discussing matches without spectators and lockdowns and other restrictions.

“Even though the World Cup is very important there are things more important than that but I am confident, from speaking to many governments and the World Health Organization, that thanks to the vaccinations everything will be in order.”