RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Just hours before kickoff, Volta Redonda soccer club discovered three of its players had the coronavirus. The three were isolated.
There was no option of canceling their match on Sunday, however, even though their opponent Fluminense wanted to abandon it.
Fluminense president Mário Bittencourt said on social media it was the first time he was upset to watch his team play.
The latest round of the Rio de Janeiro state league played out on Sunday to more protests from clubs and footballers alarmed at having to fulfil fixtures against their will amid a COVID-19 crisis that is killing hundreds of Brazilians daily and has yet to reach its peak.
Fluminense and Botafogo have led the protests since before the Rio league restarted on June 17, the first in all of South America. Other Brazilian states are considering resuming next month, but only if health authorities agree. On Monday, the soccer body of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most populous state, said “no protocol would be adequate at this moment” for sport to resume.
Not only disgusted to be playing in a pandemic, Fluminense and Botafogo insist clubs with smaller incomes such as Volta Redonda do not have the resources to uphold health protocols. Their argument appeared to be proved when Volta Redonda revealed the positive cases. After winning their match 3-0, Volta Redonda said its three infected players were showing no symptoms.
But Fluminense was far from comforted.
“One more sad page of Rio’s soccer history, which is already so hurt and outdated,” Bittencourt said. “Infected athletes, clubs of less income with limited ability to follow the so called protocol and every one of us at risk of contagion. I hope we can all get out of this insanity completely unhurt.”
Fluminense began training only after the league started, and met Volta Redonda with just a week of practice.
Botafogo was less restricted in thrashing tiny Cabofriense 6-2. But the hottest talking point from the match was not the high score or the tepid performance of veteran Japanese midfielder Keisuke Honda. It was the absence of its coach.
Paulo Autuori was suspended by a sports court for criticizing Rio’s soccer body for starting the local league. The penalty was later reversed, but he refused to appear on the sidelines on Sunday and sent his assistant instead.
Botafogo players continued his protest before kickoff with a banner aimed at those soccer authorities. It read, “A good (COVID) protocol is the one that respects lives,” in reference to the rules.
Local giants Flamengo and Vasco da Gama have pushed to play, egged on by President Jair Bolsonaro, a critic of social distancing to stop the spread. So far they have got their way. Both clubs have trained since early June, sometimes in defiance of local law.
The next chapter of the tug of war could begin in Rio courts on Monday. Mayor Marcelo Crivella issued a decree that opens one third of the stadia to fans from July 10, a feature no other major league has attempted. Botafogo and Fluminense are against it.
Players of both clubs also wore shirts inscribed with Black Lives Matter on them on Sunday, and Botafogo kneeled on the pitch in the second minute. The referee did not take action against the players.
The next round is scheduled for Wednesday.
The Brazilian championship, which was to begin in May, can start only after local leagues are finished. The national confederation said last week it expects the championship to begin in August, the same month some health experts fear the COVID-19 crisis in Brazil might be peaking.
AP Sports writer Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.