The news that Cristiano Ronaldo has tested positive for the coronavirus probably won’t be seen as a warning in global sports’ ongoing and unrelenting effort to play their way through the world’s biggest health crisis in a century. But it should be.
It’s not that Ronaldo, the best-known athlete and one of the most famous people period to have contracted COVID-19 so far, is any less likely to fully recover than the other bold-face jocks who have been infected before him. Like Kevin Durant or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he’ll almost certainly be fine.
What should have sports executives shuddering in their expensive shoes is the timing of Ronaldo’s diagnosis. Some may not have noticed it yet, but things are getting hairy again in a hurry out there. And they’re probably going to get worse before they get better.
While the NBA, the NHL, WNBA, MLS and the NWSL proved that restarting their leagues inside tightly controlled bubbles was safe, there’s now a mounting body of evidence that operating big-money team sports without such preventive measures leads to big problems. And while those problems have mostly been manageable so far, that might not be the case for much longer as the second wave of the pandemic begins to crest across the globe.
The NFL started off great. Then coronavirus outbreaks within the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots organizations created a ripple effect that has already forced the NFL to tweak the schedules of eight teams, with two-thirds of the season still to play. Another bundle of postponements could end up pushing back the Super Bowl.
Baseball’s 2020 campaign got off to such a rocky start — a slew of outbreaks across several teams nearly shut the whole thing down days after it started — that it wisely created bubbles for the playoffs and World Series.
More than 30 top-level college football games have been postponed so far. And in MLS, the Colorado Rapids have seen their last seven matches called off, with no time to make up more than two of them before the regular season concludes on Nov. 8.
All across sports, it’s a mess already. Soccer seems particularly vulnerable to major interruptions in the weeks to come, largely because of FIFA’s typically idiotic but totally expected decision to allow national teams to convene for games in every corner of the planet over the last two months, pandemic be damned.
Ronaldo’s diagnosis was announced by the Portuguese Football Federation while he was on international duty. But it seems likely that he was infected before he left Italian club Juventus, where two staffers had tested positive. All of Ronaldo’s Portugal teammates tested negative on Tuesday, but after constant exposure to him over the last week, how many of them will return a confirmed positive test in the days to come? How about Eduardo Camavinga, the French teenager Ronaldo gave his jersey to following last week’s tilt against Les Blues?
Two players from Peru, including Seattle Sounders striker Raúl Ruidíaz, will miss Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Brazil after contracting COVID-19. It is now unclear if Ruidíaz will be able to return to the United States as scheduled, or how many games he might miss for the defending MLS champs. This is the exact situation MLS wanted to avoid before it reluctantly agreed to release its players to their countries this month.
How many other players will return to their clubs from this week’s World Cup qualifiers in South America, one of the hardest-hit regions of the world in terms of fatalities, or from Nations League matches across Europe, where cases are spiking again, unknowingly carrying the virus? If games in the Premier League or La Liga or Bundesliga are impacted, clubs are going to wig out.
The return of sports has been a welcome distraction for so many people in so many ways during this terrible year in all of our lives. But the Ronaldo news should serve as a reality check, a stark reminder that another wave of pain is heading steadily toward us, if it’s not here already.
The Netherlands ordered a partial lockdown on Tuesday. Spain had already imposed one on Madrid. Italy has temporarily banned amateur soccer. In England, a leading politician is calling for implementing the most restrictive measures since the spring, a plan that apparently would shut down the Prem and lower leagues for at least a couple weeks. Russia reported its highest number of COVID-related deaths on Tuesday. French officials are preparing for a surge in hospitalizations in Paris. The list goes on.
We’re not quite out of this as a society. Not yet. And we’re finding out that sports, as much as we want them to be, sadly aren’t immune.
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