International soccer has never felt less important during COVID-19

Leander Schaerlaeckens

There are so many reasons not to play international soccer right now.

Yet here we are, already in the second international window of the young club season with another scheduled for November, and it’s an extended one at that. While the United States men’s national team wisely isn’t playing, hasn’t since February and lists no games on its schedule until June, most nations have three games on the schedule between Oct. 7-14. 

There are qualifying playoffs for the rescheduled Euro 2021, UEFA Nations League contests, 2022 World Cup qualifiers in South America and an endless list of friendlies. 

The trouble is, international soccer seldom feels essential outside of the prime summer tournaments — the World Cup, the European Championship, the African Cup of Nations and Copa America. Presently, it feels entirely obsolete.

Major COVID-19 outbreaks among club, national teams

The club season trundles on precariously, skirting major and schedule-disrupting COVID-19 outbreaks for now. But in a few places, the situation has already grown tenuous. Last weekend, Juventus-Napoli wasn’t played because the visitors had to quarantine after a match with Genoa, which subsequently had 17 players test positive. Genoa’s next game against Torino was postponed. In Brazil, 16 Flamengo players have tested positive. Superstars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe missed a few games because they were infected, as did several Paris Saint-Germain teammates. West Ham United manager David Moyes was banished for several Premier League games to quarantine.

But the pandemic has affected the national teams directly, as well. 

Switzerland star Xherdan Shaqiri tested positive on national team duty and is out, the third Liverpool player to become infected. Two members of Italy’s under-21 national team tested positive. Poland’s manager is positive. An England-Scotland under-19 friendly had to be abandoned at halftime when a coach tested positive.

And then, the coup de grâce: Four Ukraine players tested positive ahead of a friendly with world champion France — including all three goalkeepers. The 45-year-old goalkeeping coach was drafted into service as a backup. The Ukrainians lost 7-1.

The ball goes into the net ahead as two Ukraine players watch.
France's Eduardo Camavinga, unseen, scores his side's opening goal during their friendly international soccer match against Ukraine on Wednesday. (Francois Mori/AP)

No reason for Euro, World Cup qualifying right now

Clubs, and the FIFPro players union, had understandable misgivings about releasing their players to the national teams for mere friendlies or South America’s needlessly long World Cup qualifying double round-robin — a bountiful source of income for its national federations but a slog for everyone involved. Many players will become infected as bubbles mix and circles intersect. 

The argument has been made that players traveling for national team duty isn’t substantially different from clubs traveling continentally for competitions. But it is. Clubs form tight circles that have mostly kept out infections by testing and quarantining members who test positive. Their only real exposure comes at the hands of their opponents. But players going off to their respective national teams scramble all of that, creating extended exposure to members of other pods. 

International soccer, even when played without fans, could quickly turn into a traveling super-spreader circus. 

The club season is so compressed as it is that the burden on players is heavier than usual. Even in the best of times, too much is asked of players between twice-a-week club duties and national team obligations. Now that the intensity has been dialed up further by a truncated calendar — leagues had to push back their start dates after the three-month lockdown ate into much of the summer to complete 2019-20 seasons — playing a full international slate only compounds the problem. Trying to catch up on previous international windows that were missed by jamming in extra games is unconscionable. 

The travel, wear and possible infections and quarantines, as always, come at the expense of players and the clubs. 

There was no great outcry for international soccer to return, no yearning for half-hearted friendlies or contests in the convoluted and cash-grabby UEFA Nations League. There’s plenty of soccer on the calendar as it is. So why do this? Soccer’s governing bodies boast of ample cash reserves. Why not use them to make federations whole from missed revenue and cut the players and clubs some slack? To say nothing of avoiding unnecessary risk in a pandemic?

The Euro isn’t on the docket until next summer, and the World Cup is two years away. There’s no urgency in finishing up Euro qualifying. South American World Cup qualifiers can be truncated significantly and kicked off later, just like on other continents. 

There is no justification to play any international soccer right now.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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