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Brazil’s Soccer Is Another Field of Virus Conflict for Bolsonaro

Mario Sergio Lima and Simone Iglesias

(Bloomberg) --

The controversy over President Jair Bolsonaro’s push to resume normal life in Brazil amid the mounting coronavirus death toll has spread to soccer, the country’s most revered sport.

Bolsonaro’s drive to resume games as soon as possible has run into opposition from top clubs and players, who prefer to wait until the pandemic has subsided. The clash is yet another flashpoint highlighting the divide bedeviling Brazil: The federal government is intent on reopening the economy while local authorities enforce lockdowns to curb the outbreak that’s still spreading fast.

Deciding on the timing of when to resume professional leagues is proving to be a challenge for every country and sport, but for Brazil, where soccer is a national obsession, the debate is all the more heated. That added to the bitterly fought tug-of-war between the president and state governors has only clouded the question of whether athletes can get back to practice and has also exacted a price. On Friday, Bolsonaro, whose reopen-at-all-costs stance has alienated even his allies, lost his second health minister in less than a month.

Read More: Brazil Reports Record Virus Count as Second Health Chief Leaves

The president declared beauty salons, barber shops and gyms as “essential businesses” this week, allowing them to open again. State governors, though, are refusing to proceed with that directive, making it unclear when -- and how -- soccer facilities will open for training. When asked, the presidency did not comment on a return to games.

Brazil’s powerful soccer federation asks for prudence.

“Only the dynamics of the disease will determine the moment in which competitions can be resumed,” Walter Feldman, the secretary-general of the body known as CBF, said in reply to written questions.

Top clubs like Rio de Janeiro-based Botafogo and Fluminense have publicly opposed resuming activities. Former 1994 World Cup winner Rai, currently a director at Sao Paulo FC, one of the country’s biggest clubs, called Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis “irresponsible” and told Globo Sport that the club won’t return to activities quickly.

Yet the clubs in the country’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul reached an agreement Wednesday to resume the regional championship in mid-July or early August, without spectators. Earlier this month, the state’s top clubs Gremio and Internacional returned to practice at their stadiums, only to have the local government order them off the pitch.

Global Restart

Around the world, federations are considering when and how to resume play after emerging from lockdowns, balancing local government rules with the demands of clubs and players and the need to complete tournaments to recover lost revenue.

Germany’s Bundesliga on Saturday will be the first major soccer league to resume play, also without spectators. South Korea held games again last week, with crowd noise pumped in by stereo. England’s Premier League is targeting a return next month while France has canceled its season altogether. In Argentina, President Alberto Fernandez said he misses soccer, but there are no plans yet for play to begin again.

Bolsonaro, who has said “his past as an athlete” would protect him from the virus, is unapologetic about the need to have soccer back in Brazil.

“Since players are young, the chances that they will die if they catch the virus are extremely slim, and they need to work to provide for their families,” he said April 30.

The former army captain insists that games could be played again in empty stadiums and broadcast on TV, providing hours of relief and distraction for Brazilians tired of staying at home due to local restrictions.

The president’s position is in keeping with his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in general, having called Covid-19 “just a little flu.”

Brazil hasn’t reached the peak of the pandemic yet and the medical system is near collapse as the daily toll continues to rise, with more than 14,000 deaths reported as of Friday. Brazil’s stadiums aren’t being used for games right now; in fact, in some cases they’re being used as makeshift hospitals.

Read More: ‘White Elephant’ World Cup Stadiums Find New Purpose in Pandemic

Currently, most professional players in Brazil aren’t going to training camps and the Health Ministry says it is analyzing a protocol that would allow them to practice in a safe environment.

Besides health issues, several logistical problems -- including a lack of flights to cover the country’s long distances -- must be overcome before tournaments can begin again, CBF’s Feldman said.

Even players who haven’t voiced their disapproval of a return have lamented the uncertainty. Neymar, Brazil’s biggest soccer star and a forward for Paris Saint-Germain, said on his official website that not knowing when he can go back to soccer has left him anxious.

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