Coronavirus pandemic

Soldiering on despite the spike

Sports events set to continue amid more athletes testing positive for Covid-19

A staff member wearing a mask before Scotland's football team faced Serbia in Belgrade for a place in the European Championship. A rare bright spot from the international break was Scotland ending a 22-year wait to qualify for a major tournament, as
A staff member wearing a mask before Scotland's football team faced Serbia in Belgrade for a place in the European Championship. A rare bright spot from the international break was Scotland ending a 22-year wait to qualify for a major tournament, as clubs faced nervy waits over their players returning healthy after travelling to play for their countries.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Most of Europe is under a second lockdown again to bring down the case numbers arising from a second wave of Covid-19.

On the surface, it appears elite sports on the continent have not changed much since the start of this month, with competitions carrying on but fans again barred from attending, even though previous experiments, like those conducted by the Bundesliga, were deemed to be a success.

However, from football to rugby, coronavirus cases are creeping up, mirroring the increase in cases across Europe.

The previous round of testing by the Premier League from Nov 9-15 - the latest round of weekly results is expected to be released by today - saw 16 positive cases out of 1,207 players and staff tested. This represents the highest number of cases in a single round since the new season began in September.

In 11 rounds of testing so far this campaign, the double-figure mark has only been reached twice, but of greater concern to managers is when players fly off for international duty. While footballers are kept in a semi-bubble ahead of domestic and European competitions, it is not the same during international breaks due to the travelling required.

The seemingly less strict safety measures employed by some teams have been called into question, with Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho taking a swipe at Ireland's set-up after his player Matt Doherty tested positive last week.

The Irish had four positive tests this month after losing eight players last month, leading the Portuguese to quiz why "Covid test results (are taken) after matches have been played".

Ukraine's Nations League clash with Switzerland was cancelled hours before kick-off last Tuesday after a cluster of six cases, while Norway's game at Romania was forfeited after the visitors were put into quarantine due to a positive test.

In the past two weeks, Arsenal duo Mohamed Elneny and Sead Kolasinac, Crystal Palace captain Luka Milivojevic, Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and West Ham's Andriy Yarmolenko have also contracted the virus on international duty, ruling them out of the latest round of Premier League games.

Wolves skipper Conor Coady may also miss their league game at home to Southampton today after coming into contact with someone who tested positive.

The previous international breaks in September and October also saw several players test positive, including Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo and Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe.

  • 29

    Positive cases in Fiji's travelling party of players and officials, forcing the team to cancel three of its Autumn Nations Cup matches.

  • 16

    Record high of positive cases among players and staff from the Premier League's testing from Nov 9-15.

Teams are, however, expected to soldier on during the pandemic. In the Premier League, clubs have been told requests for postponements will be rejected unless they have fewer than 14 players available and they will be obliged to use their Under-21 squads to ensure matches can continue.

Uefa's Covid protocols are similar - teams are obliged to play their matches as long as they have at least 13 players - including one goalkeeper - available.

Given the disruptions amid a congested calendar, it will come as a relief to club managers that there will be no more international games scheduled until March.

Test rugby is continuing until next month even though the Autumn Nations Cup has been affected. Fiji's squad has been laid low with 29 positive cases, resulting in the scrapping of three of their fixtures. It also means they will finish bottom of Group B without playing a game although organisers are hopeful they can still take part in the final round on Dec 5.

A statement read: "The tournament remain in constant contact with the Fijian squad regarding their well-being and recovery, which continues to be the No. 1 priority."

But the precarious Covid situation is not stopping British government officials from exploring the possibility of bringing back fans as soon as next month, which would be the first time since the Premier League was suspended in March.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is reportedly eager for supporters to return to stadiums once the second national lockdown ends and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in agreement. He said last week: "I pledge that when we come out of lockdown on Dec 2, we will work to have the crowds to come back. Don't run away with it, but we need to do much better and bring the fans back."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2020, with the headline 'Soldiering on despite the spike'. Print Edition | Subscribe