Premier League defies FIFA, blocks players for WC qualifiers

Rob Harris
Associated Press

The decision of the Premier League clubs was clear: No players will be released to play for countries on England's “red list.”

The announcement Tuesday by the world’s richest league highlighted the escalating backlash FIFA is facing across soccer over its decision to overlook coronavirus-related quarantine requirements and concerns of clubs and leagues to squeeze in more World Cup qualifiers in the coming weeks.

The Spanish league also said it would support any of its clubs that did not want to release players for international duty with South American teams.

FILE - FIFA is facing an escalating backlash across soccer over the decision to ignore concerns of clubs and leagues and squeeze more World Cup qualifiers into September and overlook coronavirus-related quarantine requirements.

Unlike for other international fixtures during the pandemic, FIFA is no longer allowing exemptions for players to opt out of the trips if they are forced to quarantine on their return to countries to resume club duties.

Clubs face FIFA sanctions if they refuse to release players but Liverpool has already told Egypt that Mohamed Salah won't be released for next week's games because he would face a mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine on returning to England.

Premier League clubs also backed Liverpool's position, forming a unified front Tuesday to “reluctantly but unanimously” block almost 60 players from 19 clubs going to 26 countries on England's red list that features all 10 South American countries.

Brazil will be particularly impacted without goalkeepers Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City), captain Thiago Silva (Chelsea), midfielders Fred (Manchester United), Fabinho (Liverpool), and forwards Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City) and Richarlison (Everton).

“Clubs have reluctantly but rightly come to the conclusion that it would be entirely unreasonable to release players under these new circumstances,” Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said. "Quarantine requirements mean that players’ welfare and fitness will be significantly impacted. We understand the challenges that exist in the international match calendar and remain open to workable solutions.”

The Spanish league hit out at FIFA's “unilateral decision” to grant two additional days for South American countries to play games in both September and October so three qualifiers can be played in each window, rather than the usual two. That means, regardless of any quarantine requirements on their return, players would likely not be rested enough to play for their clubs when leagues resume.

“La Liga considers that the international match calendar can not and should not be modified in this way, especially given that viable alternatives exist," said the Spanish league, which has already seen 25 players from 13 clubs named in squads by South American nations.

“LaLiga will take appropriate legal action as this change will affect the availability of players to play for their clubs, to the clear detriment of the competition’s integrity.”

CONMEBOL is trying to complete most of qualifying in time for the planned draw in April for the men's World Cup in Qatar next year and was granted approval for the triple-headers by the FIFA Bureau headed by Gianni Infantino earlier this month. Concerns about FIFA's actions are being led by the European Club Association, which is headed by Paris Saint-Germain's Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

“ECA has firmly expressed its objection to FIFA’s decision and has urged FIFA to review its position,” the organization wrote to its member clubs last week. “ECA will not accept that a governing body like FIFA abuses its regulatory function in order to place its commercial interests and those of its member associations above the physical wellbeing of players and legitimate sporting interests of clubs.”

The ECA said it was “entirely unreasonable” for FIFA not to extend the ability for players to be exempt from being called up by their countries based on quarantine requirements imposed by countries.

The World Leagues Forum proposed to FIFA that South America's games could instead by played in a bubble. It also proposed using the four blank international matchdays between May 30-June 14, 2022 to complete qualifying. The only qualifiers scheduled for then currently are the four-team intercontinental playoffs featuring a South American squad to determine the final two slots at the World Cup.

“FIFA has decided to impose the worst possible option with practically no notice,” said the organization which represents 40 professional football leagues. “This poses an obvious governance issue which will have to be addressed.”

FIFA not only organizes the World Cup, which generates most of the governing body's revenue of $6 billion in the four-year cycle, but it also regulates the game globally and oversees the international calendar.

FIFA declined comment beyond its Aug. 6 statement announcing the additional South American qualifier in both September and October.

“The addition of two days will ensure sufficient rest and preparation time between matches,” FIFA said, “reflecting the longer travel distances required both to and within South America, thus safeguarding player welfare by mitigating the negative consequences of this more intense schedule, while ensuring a fair competition as well as a prompter return to their clubs of the players involved.”