As Brazil's coronavirus crisis worsens, top clubs play political football

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Brazil's coronavirus death toll is rising alarmingly, with Tuesday the first day in which the 24-hour total topped 1,000, adding to a national total that is approaching 18,000 and increasing the strain on health systems, with some cities close to buckling. Only the United States and Russia have more confirmed COVID-19 cases than Brazil.

But even as the numbers grow amid the pandemic, there remains a desire in some quarters for football to return, with President Jair Bolsonaro having made no secret of his desire to see Brazil's national game up and running as soon as possible: "If it depended on my vote, I would approve," he said as far back as April 27.

Bolsonaro is a critic of social distancing protocols imposed by the governors in many of Brazil's 27 states, and his administration has parted company with two health ministers -- one was sacked and the other resigned -- in no small part because they were in favour of such measures and the temporary closure of non-essential commercial activity.

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And so it was to Bolsonaro that a pair of Rio de Janeiro giants looked in their bid to restart training. Tuesday saw the presidents and leading directors of national and continental champions Flamengo and their historic rivals, Vasco da Gama, meet with Bolsonaro in Brasilia for what was described as an informal lunch.

The long-term agenda was to discuss how and when football might restart. This has a number of complications, such as Brazil's federal structure giving state governors power to determine whether games -- or even proper training -- can take place.

Moreover, there is the complexity of the country's footballing calendar. The first few months of the year are given over to state championships, after which the four-tier national championship kicks off. It is hard enough to fit in the matches, and a pandemic makes it all but impossible.

When the coronavirus pause began in mid-March, the state championships were moving toward a climax. Should they be completed? The national league was supposed to be underway by now, so much further delay would make it hard to see how everything could be crammed in. As a fan, Bolsonaro might have his own opinion, but he has no decision-making authority.

A more immediate aim of Tuesday's meeting was the quest for help in allowing the clubs to train in the capital city; Rio's football federation authorized the restart of practice some weeks ago, but was instantly overruled by local government.

Brasilia has offered its services: The Mane Garrincha stadium was built for the 2014 World Cup and was the most expensive of all venues, but has been underused since the tournament. After receiving an offer from local authorities, Flamengo and Vasco are considering taking players, coaches and their families some 600 miles northwest.

Following the meeting, Bolsonaro said, "They want to return to playing football. I spoke with the health minister to have a protocol to reopen. Start without anyone in the stands," while Flamengo medical director Marcio Tannure stated via social media, "Today we took a small step, but it could signify a big step for our return! We continue working ..."

On Wednesday, Globo TV helicopters spotted players training at Flamengo's facility, the Vulture's Nest, but while these two giants see things one way, fellow Rio powerhouses Fluminense and Botafogo have argued against the idea, with Botafogo particularly vociferous.

Carlos Augusto Montenegro is a former club president who remains on the Botafogo board of directors, and he pulled no punches in an interview to Globo Esporte, describing the proposed project as "an act of cowardice."

"The clubs have to be big on and off the field," Montenegro said. "This is an attitude of a tiny team. People will come to training and could leave contaminated. It could be an act of homicide forcing the situation in this way. Who will be held responsible if an athlete or a club employee transmits the virus to a family member or someone at home? The position of Botafogo is that we are not going to play."

The recent death from coronavirus of Jorginho, Flamengo's massage specialist since 1980 and a member of Brazil's backroom team at the 2002 World Cup, was a potent reminder of the virus' threat, and it would be strange if there were not misgivings among players about the dangers of a premature return.

Earlier this month, in a video featuring players from a number of leading clubs who voiced their concern that moves to get the game restarted might be made too fast, Flamengo's Diego said, "This is a time for unity," while teammate Everton Ribeiro emphasized the need for "safe working conditions."

It was unclear how many Flamengo and Vasco players have reservations and if any agree with Montenegro -- and whether they might think it prudent to keep such a view to themselves, given that going public with such an opinion might not please their clubs.