South America’s Copa Libertadores suddenly shut down in mid March, at the same time as its European equivalent, the Champions League.
Since then, of course, Europe has managed to complete its competition. South America only resumes this week, a full six months after the whistle was last blown. And it may well still be too soon.
In the 10 countries of the continent, only six domestic leagues are up and running. Colombia is about to resume. Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela have yet to define start dates. There is a reason for this: the coronavirus pandemic has not been brought under control.
But the Libertadores kicks off on Tuesday, with a full programme of mid week matches. The first two rounds of group games were played in March. Now the third round (of six) is taking place in mid September. And it does so because CONMEBOL, the South American Confederation, have worked hard to ensure that the show can go on.
The first problem they had to solve was making sure that the teams can travel to away fixtures. Distances are vast in South America, and travel infrastructure can be found wanting at the best of times. These, of course, are not the best of times. In some cases borders have not been re-opened, in others there are no commercial flights between destinations. And so CONMEBOL bankrolled charter flights.
Problem number two was finding a way over the bureaucratic obstacles of going to different countries. Not only is there the question of closed borders, there are also quarantine restrictions. CONMEBOL found a way round that one, too. They drew up a detailed protocol, attempting to ensure that visiting players will come into contact with as few people as possible in the airport, the hotel and the stadium. The protocol was presented to — and eventually agreed by — all 10 South American governments. The team delegations are free to enter other countries, and free from quarantine on their return home.
The third problem was the threat of teams suffering multiple cases of players testing positive for the virus, as has happened to a number of clubs around the continent. The most notable case is that of Boca Juniors in Argentina, where 18 players were found to have contracted COVID-19. The response here was to increase the size of the squads. Usually each team registers 30 players to take part in the Libertadores. They can now have 40 — a change which may well be seen as almost an admission that a gamble is being taken by bringing the competition back in the current circumstances.
One aspect of the restart which is beyond the capacity of CONMEBOL to fix is the disparity between the teams in terms of their level of preparation. The teams from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela have not played a competitive game in six months. Their players will clearly suffer from a lack of match fitness against rivals from, say, Paraguay and Brazil, who have had well over a month of league games to whip themselves into shape.
The Jorge Wilstermann club of Bolivia may feel this in the game that restarts the action on Tuesday night. They take on Athletico Paranaense of Brazil, who have already played nine league matches since the start of August. At least the Bolivians can count on the advantage of the altitude of their home city of Cochabamba. The Argentine clubs have nothing similar.
Argentina was the only country to vote against the resumption of the Libertadores. Bolivia, whose FA president had died of the coronavirus, abstained, as did Venezuela, who have been going through internal problems.
The five Argentine clubs have been given the minor concession of not playing their first game back until Thursday, giving them an extra couple of days to train. Even so, River Plate will be at a clear physical disadvantage when they travel to Brazil to face Sao Paulo, as will Boca, who are in Paraguay against Libertad, coached by their old rival, River Plate legend Ramon Diaz.
Another Argentine coach working abroad is Martin Brignani, of Venezuela’s Estudiantes de Merida. And he almost certainly will be working abroad this Wednesday, when his team receive Alianza Lima of Peru. Brignani went back to Argentina in May, and unless a last minute solution arises, will be unable to get back to Venezuela for the game. His plan, then, is to watch the game on television from the other end of the continent and transmit instructions by telephone — proof that social distancing remains a part of the 2020 Copa Libertadores.