European teams start World Cup qualifying campaign amid COVID chaos

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Kylian Mbappe and France begin their defence of the World Cup trophy against Ukraine as European qualifying begins despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic Photo: AFP/File

By Andy SCOTT – Japan Today

Holders France begin their defense of the World Cup this week as European qualifying for the 2022 finals in Qatar gets underway against a backdrop of confusion and chaos over the release of players in a worrying health context across the continent.

While this month’s scheduled qualifiers in South America were called off and most matches in Asia were postponed, players in Europe are having to work their way around travel restrictions in order to join up with national teams.

FIFA’s decision to relax rules forcing clubs to release players during an international window remains in place until the end of April, with world football’s governing body unable to ignore the wider context of the COVID-19 crisis.

The consequences of that have largely been confusion and plenty of backtracking by clubs and authorities in recent days.

Winners in 2018, France host Ukraine behind closed doors on Wednesday before flying 5,500 kilometers to Kazakhstan and stopping off on the way back in Sarajevo for another game against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The trip has caused some controversy in France, with authorities allowing members of the French team to go to Central Asia and then the Balkans while the French league said it would not release players to travel out of the 27-nation European Union or European Economic Area (EAA), which also includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

That was due to clubs being worried about players having to self-isolate for a week on their return, thereby missing their team’s next league game.

A row ensued, with the decision affecting several European nations with players based in Ligue 1, but also many African national teams looking to call up players for Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

“I’m not a politician, I’m just an ordinary guy, but it’s not fair. It is not wise at the moment either. We need to stick together and not show discrimination or racism. It doesn’t give a good image,” said Lyon captain Memphis Depay, with the Dutch international at risk of missing his country’s qualifier in Turkey as a result.

Realizing it was not a good look, the French sports ministry announced over the weekend that all players could be released after all, saying they would be “exempt from a seven-day isolation as long as they respect a strict health and medical protocol” on returning.

U-turns have happened elsewhere, with Bayern Munich announcing that star Polish striker Robert Lewandowski and Austrian defender David Alaba would be released for international duty due to a change in Germany’s COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Lewandowski can now play for Poland against England at Wembley on March 31, while Alaba can feature for Austria against Scotland in Glasgow on Thursday.

Bayern had initially said neither player would be released to play in the UK as Germany had insisted on a two-week quarantine for anyone traveling from Britain.

“We gave the go-ahead for both players,” confirmed Bayern coach Hansi Flick.

Some countries have been forced to take quite drastic action to get around possible restrictions.

Portugal moved their qualifier against Azerbaijan to Turin in Italy. Had the game gone ahead in Lisbon, they feared having to leave out 10 Premier League-based players who faced having to self-isolate for 10 days on their return to the United Kingdom.

The decision to make teams play three qualifiers in seven days just before the run-in to the club season, despite the travel difficulties, also raises eyebrows as it means no let-up for elite players in a punishing schedule.

It is worth pondering what kind of physical condition they will be in by the time the delayed Euro 2020 starts on June 11.

For now it is all about the road to Qatar.

Despite qualifying automatically as hosts, Qatar have already taken part in the Asian qualifying tournament and will now be involved in the European competition too.

They will be sparring partners for teams in Group A and will play games in Hungary against Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and the Republic of Ireland.

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