A World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina was suspended in farcical circumstances on Sunday after Brazilian health officials took to the field to object to the participation of three Argentine players they say broke COVID-19 quarantine rules.
Officials from Brazil’s health regulator Anvisa walked on to the pitch at the Corinthians arena and stopped the game around five minutes after kickoff.
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The players were surprised at the encroachment and the Argentines quickly left the field, although the two coaches, along with Argentina captain Lionel Messi and Brazilian players, gathered at the side of the pitch a few moments later to discuss the stoppage.
“Why did they start the game and stop it after five minutes?” Messi said in comments heard on television. “We’ve been here at the stadium for an hour, they could have told us.”
Messi then returned to the dressing room and at 5pm local time, an hour after the game kicked off, the match was officially suspended.
“The referee and the match official will take a report to the FIFA Disciplinary Committee and they will decide what steps to take,” said a statement issued by the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL).
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The incident occurred just hours after Anvisa had said four Argentine players must isolate and could not play in the match.
The three who started the game, Cristian Romero, Giovani Lo Celso and Emiliano Martinez, were among four Argentine players who play in England’s Premier League.
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Brazilian Football Confederation president said he was “indignant” with the scenes that reverberated around the football world.
Ednaldo Rodrigues criticised Anvisa and said officials told him the Argentines who breached the country’s COVID-19 rules could have been deported after the game.
“I feel sorry for all the sports fans who wanted to watch the game on television,” he told Brazil’s Sportv. “With all due respect to Anvisa, they could have resolved this earlier and not waited for the game to start.”
A shellshocked Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni agreed.
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“It makes me so sad, I am not looking for guilty parties, whatever happened or didn’t happen, this wasn’t the time to do it,” he told Argentine broadcaster TyC Sports.
“We wanted to enjoy a game between the best in the world and it ends up like this.”
“As a coach I am going to defend my players. If people come and say we want to take this guy or deport this guy there was no chance of that,” he said. “Because at no time were we told we couldn’t play the game.”
Under Brazilian rules, visitors who have been in the UK in the 14 days before entering the country must quarantine for 14 days on arrival.
Anvisa were tipped off the four did not state that information on their immigration forms and on Sunday morning they confirmed the details given were “false”.
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“Anvisa considers the situation a serious health risk and so has asked local health authorities to determine the immediate quarantine of the players, who are stopped from participating in any activity and should be prevented from remaining on Brazilian soil,” Anvisa said in a statement.
Nevertheless, the three, along with Emiliano Buendia, were allowed to travel to the Corinthians arena.
Buendia and Martinez play for Aston Villa and Lo Celso and Romero are with Tottenham Hotspur.
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The confusion comes amid continuing anger in South America at rules which have robbed several teams of key players for this month’s three World Cup qualifiers.
Brazil were without nine key men for Argentina game, and other South American sides have also lost players due to a decision by some European clubs not to let their players travel to the continent.
They would have had to quarantine when they returned to Europe and the clubs do not want to lose their players for subsequent league games.
Aston Villa said the two Emilianos had agreed to return to their club after the Brazil game and miss Argentina’s game against Bolivia on Tuesday. The Argentine Football Association, however, said they would play all three games.
Brazil currently lead the South American qualifying group for Qatar 2022, six points ahead of second-placed Argentina. The top four qualify automatically for Qatar.
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Christian Radnedge and Pritha Sarkar)