Unpacking Brazil-Argentina World Cup qualifier fiasco, France look flat, Liverpool's contract mess

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Updated: September 7, 2021

There’s no Premier League or LaLiga during the international break, but World Cup qualifying has captured the imagination around the globe, with talking points galore around Europe’s top sides (England, France, Italy) and high drama in South America between a pair of old rivals, Brazil and Argentina.

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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football in a special international-break edition of his musings.

Jump to: Brazil-Argentina mess | England suffer abuse | French woe? | Italy’s record run | Liverpool at a turning point


Plenty of blame to share for Brazil, Argentina chaos

When you witness a fiasco like the World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina in Sao Paulo on Sunday night, abandoned when police and health officials wandered onto the pitch around the five-minute mark, your first reaction is one of anger.

Why can’t they get this right? Why can’t common sense prevail? Don’t fans, players and football lovers all over the globe — not just in Brazil and Argentina — deserve better?

Here are some facts and context. It’s a complicated story and, as often happens, you’re tempted to do two things, both of them mistakes.

One is to pull at the thread until it unravels, going back in time and asking macro-questions, such as: Why are we playing international qualifiers during a global pandemic? Why are we having to play a triple-header of games in eight days? Why couldn’t last summer’s Copa America slot be used for qualifiers?

They’re fair questions to ask, but going “macro” also loses sight of the “micro,” and it’s important not to let past errors cloud judgement of what happened in the here and now. Because that’s how you apportion responsibility and decide the fairest way forward. And why is it important to be fair? Because unless you’re seen to be as fair as you possibly can be, then you’ll lose credibility. And credibility matters at a time when so many have lost faith in institutions (not just in sports, either).

The other is to throw your hands in the air and conclude “they’re all as bad as each other!” A bit like your teacher might have done when you were back in elementary school and got into a playground scrap.

“He started it!”

“No he started it!”

“Well, I’m ending it! You’re both getting detention!”

(Yes, this actually happened to me. More than once.)

Because when you actually take the time to sift through the facts, you realize that there’s plenty of blame to go around as new facts emerge. From the Argentine FA to Anvisa (Brazil’s national health surveillance agency), from the South American Football Confederation to the Brazilian FA, from the government to the Brazilian federal police.

But guess what? They’re not all equally to blame, as my colleague Gustavo Hofman, who was there at every step, told us on Monday’s Gab + Juls Show.

Hofman was there at Argentina’s team hotel on Saturday when Anvisa officials showed up to inform the Argentine FA that four players — Aston Villa‘s Emiliano Buendia and Emiliano Martinez, Tottenham’s Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso — had supplied inaccurate information on their COVID-19 declaration when they entered the country. They’d neglected to disclose that they had been in the United Kingdom in the previous 14 days and this was important because, under a Brazilian law that took effect on July 21, anyone who has been in highly infectious countries like the United Kingdom, India or South Africa, has to quarantine for 10 days. (Except if they’re Brazilian passport holders. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because the virus checks passports before it infects.) And since it’s one of those “under penalty of law” documents, they had committed a criminal offence.

Hofman reports that the Anvisa officials held a meeting with officials from CONMEBOL, the Argentine FA and Brazilian FA later on Saturday. It lasted four hours and when it ended, they’d reached an agreement: The four players would stay in the team hotel and not play the following night. The game would go ahead — or so CONMEBOL and the two FAs thought.

Anvisa thought differently, because the next day, three hours before kickoff, they issued a statement saying the four players would be deported immediately due to their false declaration. You know what happened next: They made their way to the stadium and, after much to and fro, the match was called off.

We don’t know whether an agreement was actually reached between Anvisa and the other parties on Saturday — one of the two sides, it would appear, isn’t telling the truth. If it was reached, CONMEBOL were foolish not to get it in writing.

So, in descending order, here’s who to blame. Anvisa acted like the worst kind of inflexible bureaucrats in intervening in the way they did. They’re the government and they have the federal police on their side; it’s hard to believe that it was necessary to interrupt the game. They could have issued their statement sooner, gotten to the stadium sooner or instructed cops at the stadium to block access to the pitch until they arrived.

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Gab Marcotti discusses what happens after Brazil’s match was abandoned when Brazilian health officials objected to the participation of three Argentina players.

The Argentine FA bears plenty of responsibility, too. Their defence rests on the fact that they were following the protocols laid out for the Copa America, which was the last time they traveled to Brazil: player bubbles, daily testing, etc. And that those protocols had been agreed and endorsed by CONMEBOL and Mercosur. Fine. But once you’re told that the law has changed and that you shouldn’t play those four players (and, presumably, you agree not to play them), that’s it. Do what the government and the cops with guns tell you to do.

If, as reported, Argentina were given one last chance in the stadium itself — leave the four guys in the dressing room and play the others, and the game can go ahead — and they still refused, well, that’s on them.

As for CONMEBOL? Well, this is their responsibility. You’re running qualifying competition, you know those four players are traveling, you know — or should know — what the law says, and you should be running point on mediating. Making sure that your member FAs know the rules and stick to them may not be, strictly speaking, part of your job, but it’s in your interest that they get it right so you can avoid embarrassments like Sunday night.

The Brazilian FA doesn’t get away scot-free here, either. FIFA rules say the host nation is responsible for ensuring the visiting nation knows all the entry requirements. Yes, they did tell them, but they also knew (or should have known) that the law had changed. They certainly could have been more proactive, both in terms of lobbying the Argentines and their own government.

And, finally, there’s the government. Anvisa is an independent government agency. You don’t want interference, but you also don’t want international incidents and global embarrassment. They too could have done more.

So no, they’re not all as bad as each other, but they’re all, to different degrees, responsible. What happens next is now up to FIFA, and you assume CONMEBOL is all too happy to pass them the buck to unravel this mess.

The fairest thing to do is to replay the game, but given how congested the calendar is, it’s hard to see how to do it unless you stick it at the end of the qualifying tournament, when both, presumably, will have qualified, like some kind of meaningless kick-about. Unless, of course, you seek permission to play it outside of the international match days and, perhaps, only with South America-based players — which brings its own problems. Yes, the Europe-based stars would be missing, but it’s better than not playing at all.


England players abused by fans that shouldn’t have been there

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Nedum Onuoha and Gab Marcootti both express their positive views of England’s play as they easily defeat Hungary 4-0.

England made it five wins out of five in qualifying Group I with 4-0 wins over Hungary away and Andorra at home. But the former game saw racist abuse directed at England players of color in a sad rerun of what happened at the Puskas Arena during the Euros, when they faced France. Hungary were hit with a three-game stadium ban (with one game suspended) for what happened at the Euros…

… so why were fans even present to abuse players?

Well, because the Euros are a UEFA competition and the ban was issued by UEFA. World Cup qualifying is a FIFA competition and UEFA bans don’t apply. It’s a bit like how a player who gets a three-match ban in the Premier League is still free to play in the Champions League.

As explanations go, this one leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s one rule that ought to be changed straight away. Crowds racially abusing players is not the same as denying a goal-scoring opportunity outside the penalty area, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. The punishment ought to be immediate and worldwide. And yes, there is precedent: If you get banned for doping or match-fixing, it applies across all tournaments and competitions.

It’s not just a question of optics, either. There’s also the fact that justice (and punishment) needs to be swift to be effective. With the ban fresh in their minds, the abusers were always more likely to racially abuse in this game.

This is not a controversial issue. This is a common-sense issue and one where, you’d hope, FIFA and UEFA could swiftly reach common ground.


France are really off form. Should they be worried?

The world champions have now gone five games without winning following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Ukraine. That’s a long streak for a team this talented, but, perhaps, it’s also not entirely surprising.

Regular readers know that while I think there are many things France boss Didier Deschamps does well, instilling patterns of play and a system that maximises the players at his disposal isn’t one of them. France won a World Cup basically by playing four central defenders across the back, playing on the counter and waiting for their superstars to do something. The problem with that approach is that if you go a goal down, you actually have to do something in the opposition half and sometimes, your superstars aren’t going to create out of nothing.

This was evident against Ukraine, especially as some of the superstars were missing: Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kante did not start. They went a goal down during a shambles of a first half, and had to huff and puff to avoid defeat. Once again, they were less than the sum of their parts.

I don’t think you need to be overly worried — unless they lose to Finland at home on Tuesday night — but it does reinforce the fact that this team could be so much more than it is.


Italy drop points… but set a record

Roberto Mancini noted after Italy’s 0-0 draw with Switzerland on Sunday how his team dominated and created chances, but failed to convert them. That’s broadly true — Jorginho missed a penalty, Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne were denied by world-class saves from Yann Sommer — but there’s more to it than that. (And no, it’s not all Ciro Immobile‘s fault, though his centre-forward play with Italy is once again a pale imitation of what he does for Lazio).

Italy simply looked less sharp in the scoreless draw — even worse than they did in the previous draw, against Bulgaria — and that wouldn’t have changed if any one of their big chances had gone in. For all the plaudits they gained in winning the Euros, this is not a side brimming with individual talent (which is not to say there isn’t any). Things need to click and click right if they’re going to succeed.

They still have a four-point lead in the group, but Switzerland have two games in hand. If Switzerland win both, the head-to-head in Rome on Nov. 12 becomes a must-win game for the Azzurri, and that’s not a great situation to be in.

All that said, they did extend their unbeaten streak to 36 international matches, which is a new men’s world record, eclipsing Spain and Brazil. Naturally, it would have been better to celebrate the achievement with a victory, but it’s still an achievement in the modern game — and if you’re superstitious, you’ll note the other two went on to win World Cups.


Liverpool approaching a contract cliff-edge

The next six months are going to be critical for Liverpool, and they neatly illustrate the importance of getting the age balance right in your squad.

Having negotiated contract extensions with Virgil Van Dijk (through 2025, when he’ll be on the verge of his 34th birthday) and Jordan Henderson (also 2025, when he’ll be 35), they have some big decisions to make over their attacking trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. All three are 29 and all three are in the final two years of their contract. In normal circumstances, the rule is that ideally you extend a player you want to keep before he enters the last two years of his contract or, if you can’t get the deal done, you find him a new club.

Obviously, the past two years have been anything but normal circumstances for Liverpool (who are hamstrung in other ways, as this thread by the excellent Swiss Ramble illustrates) but that doesn’t make their decisions any more straightforward.

There’s only so much cash to go around. Committing yourself for multiple years to too many highly-paid players beyond their 31st birthday is risky. They are difficult to sell (because they’re older and make more money), and performances often tend to decline when a player hits his 30s. Plus, it means there are less resources available to strengthen other areas.

This is going to be one of the last big decisions Michael Edwards — their widely respected sporting director and, along with Jurgen Klopp, the architect of this team — makes before he moves on at the end of the season. It may not grab the headlines, but it’s critical Liverpool get it right.

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