While it still may feel like a distant dream, the Copa Libertadores will soon be upon us once more. Whether Argentina's participants will be in any fit state to compete is a whole different question altogether though – reports emanating from one side in particular demonstrate just how difficult it will be to restart the competition across a continent which is firmly established as one of the hardest and longest-hit by the seemingly unstoppable coronavirus pandemic.
The return to training for the nation's top clubs, particularly those whose interest in the Copa remains – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club, Tigre and Defensa y Justicia – was predicated on the so-called 'bubble' protocol that has been employed with surprising levels of effectiveness across professional sports elsewhere in the world. In theory, players already cleared of suspicion of carrying the virus through mass testing would then remain inside the narrowest of social interaction circles, limiting their chances of infection and subsequent spread. The idea is sound, but when the bubble bursts – as it has at Boca – the consequences are predictably grim.
This week alone it was confirmed that no less than 18 of the Xeneize squad tested positive for Covid-19, including all of their goalkeepers, Esteban Andrada, Agustín Rossi, new arrival Javier García and youngster Manuel Roffo. As well as that sizeable contingent, all of whom are currently barred from training until the virus is eradicated from their systems, Boca are also without Sebastián Villa, who has been separated from the squad while he answers charges of domestic violence. Iván Marcone and Agustín Almendra, who tested positive prior to the start of training, are waiting to rejoin activities. Carlos Tevez, meanwhile, was discovered to have already contracted coronavirus at some point during football's six-month shutdown.
To compound matters coach Miguel Ángel Russo, 63 years old and considered part of the at-risk population due to his underlying health issues, has been forced to stay away from the rest of the squad in order to avoid the illness, bringing all training to a halt. Such a situation would be grave enough at the best of times, but with Boca's first Libertadores game against Libertad less than two weeks away serious doubts have emerged over how the club will be able to fulfil their fixtures.
Fernando Signorini, who acted as fitness coach to Diego Maradona during his time with the Argentina national team, believes the time has come for Boca's players to say, enough is enough. “It is not recommended physically for players who have tested positive for Covid now to play against Libertad,” he explained to Olé. “They also wouldn't be able to perform. Less in a tournament as big as the Libertadores.
“Playing would show disrespect to history. Once in their life the players have to say 'stop.' They cannot stay like herded sheep. The powers-that-be cannot take them where they wish. If they say stop, this whole disrespect to them and to football would be over. I would refuse to play the Copa.”
Such issues, albeit not quite to the extreme extent faced by the Xeneize, have been suffered across the continent in one form or another. An unlikely beneficiary was River, who saw their daunting trip to Peru's Juliaca – 3,840 metres above sea level – against Binacional on September 22 moved to the more sedate venue of Lima, due to an outbreak of new cases in the locale. Every team involved can only hope that cases do not appear as the countdown continues to the first round of matches since March, with every bout of flu, as with São Paulo's Reinaldo, raising fears of false negatives and chaos within the playing staff.
The bubble popped in spectacular fashion at the Bombonera but is holding, just, elsewhere; but with no confirmation as of yet with regards to just what went wrong at Boca, their rivals across South America know that the slightest slip in care could lead to a similar outbreak.