FIFA backlash over player release for World Cup qualifiers

FIFA is facing an escalating backlash across soccer over its decision to overlook coronavirus-related quarantine requirements and concerns of clubs and leagues to squeeze in more World Cup qualifiers in the coming weeks.

Unlike for other international fixtures during the pandemic, FIFA is no longer allowing exemptions for players to opt out of the trips if they are forced to quarantine on their return to countries to resume club duties.

Clubs face FIFA sanctions if they refuse to release players but Liverpool has already told Egypt that Mohamed Salah won’t be released for next week’s games because he would face a mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine on returning to England.

Premier League clubs were holding talks on Tuesday about forming a unified position to block players going to countries on England’s red list which also features several South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru.

On top of that, South American countries have been granted three additional days with players by FIFA in both September and October so three qualifiers can be played in each window, rather than the usual two.

That means, even if quarantine requirements were relaxed for players returning from red-list countries, players would likely not be rested enough to play for their clubs when leagues resume.

CONMEBOL is trying to complete most of qualifying in time for the planned draw in April for the men’s World Cup in Qatar next year and was granted approval for the triple-headers by the FIFA Bureau headed by Gianni Infantino earlier this month. Concerns about FIFA’s actions are being led by the European Club Association, which is headed by Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

“ECA has firmly expressed its objection to FIFA’s decision and has urged FIFA to review its position,” the organization wrote to its member clubs last week. “ECA will not accept that a governing body like FIFA abuses its regulatory function in order to place its commercial interests and those of its member associations above the physical wellbeing of players and legitimate sporting interests of clubs.”

The ECA said it was “entirely unreasonable” for FIFA not to extend the ability for players to be exempt from being called up by their countries based on quarantine requirements imposed by countries.

The World Leagues Forum proposed to FIFA that South America’s games could instead by played in a bubble in Miami. It also proposed using the four blank international matchdays between May 30-June 14, 2022 to complete qualifying. The only qualifiers scheduled for then currently are the four-team intercontinental playoffs featuring a South American squad to determine the final two slots at the World Cup.

“FIFA has decided to impose the worst possible option with practically no notice,” said the organization which represents 40 professional football leagues. “This poses an obvious governance issue which will have to be addressed.”

FIFA not only organizes the World Cup, which generates most of the governing body’s revenue of $6 billion in the four-year cycle, but it also regulates the game globally and oversees the international calendar.

FIFA declined comment beyond its Aug. 6 statement announcing the additional South American qualifier in both September and October.

“The addition of two days will ensure sufficient rest and preparation time between matches,” FIFA said, “reflecting the longer travel distances required both to and within South America, thus safeguarding player welfare by mitigating the negative consequences of this more intense schedule, while ensuring a fair competition as well as a prompter return to their clubs of the players involved.”