The first South American league set to be up and running after the coronavirus pandemic is Paraguay, with a kickoff date of July 17.
It is the reward for an efficient and rapid response to the outbreak. Paraguay had just gone through an epidemic of dengue fever, and its health service was feeling the strain. It concentrated the mind effectively, including in football. Paraguay was playing behind closed doors while the rest of the continent carried on as normal. The total coronavirus death toll is 11. Paraguay has earned the right to usher in the return of professional football.
But all over the continent, there is pressure for a return. Top-level sport walks an uneasy tightrope between culture and business. Its financial imperatives mean that it will inevitably come back before conditions are ideal — behind closed doors, for example.
Another idea that is being floated, to speed things up and which has also being suggested in U.S. sports: play all of the matches in one city. The front-runner in this project is Peru. Peru runs second to Brazil in coronavirus deaths, with approximately 5,300. If football is to return, there must surely be restrictions. And the project, coming from the government and the health ministry, is to restart in around 40-45 days with all of the matches taking place in the capital city of Lima.
By tradition, Peruvian football is highly centralized. The traditional big three clubs — Alianza Lima, Universitario and Sporting Cristal — are all based in Lima. Peru is a large country, and over the last half century there have been concerted efforts to broaden the game. Outside the capital there is massive fluidity. Provincial clubs come and go, fall and rise. But now 13 of the 20 first-division clubs are from the provinces, with seven from Lima and the neighbouring port of Callao.
Making everyone play in Lima will simplify the sanitization process and cut down on logistical costs, but it is hard on some of the clubs from different regions. Lima is at sea level. The Andes mountain range runs through the country, and some of the clubs play at altitude, including the reigning domestic champions Binacional. Their success has been based on shrewd use of the home conditions. Having to come down the mountain to play all their games at sea level will be hard on Binacional and some of the other clubs. But this is the price they will have to pay in order to restart their activities and have an income once more.
But what of Bolivia next door? The Bolivian authorities, inspired by the Peruvian example, suggested that their clubs might think of something similar. But there is an obvious problem here. Bolivia is not so centralized. No city is as dominant as Lima. Highlands and lowlands joust for power, and this was reflected in a meeting of club presidents and representatives on Friday. The president of Bolivar (from La Paz, 3,600 metres above sea level) suggested that Cochabamba (2,570 metres) as the city to be used to stage the remaining matches of the championship. Perhaps embarrassed by the proposal, the president of the leading Cochabamba club, Jorge Wilstermann, suggested a combination of Sucre (2,810 metres) and Tarija (1,854 metres) as joint hosts.
But there the embarrassment ended. The president of The Strongest then put forward the idea of La Paz, the highland city where his club is based. And Oriente Petrolero responded by suggesting their own lowland city of Santa Cruz. Reaching a consensus may not be easy.
The idea of using one or two cities to stage matches has yet to be seriously debated in Brazil. But it may end up being useful. The debate is being held up by two factors. First is the sheer scale of the coronavirus disaster, with a death toll of almost 36,000 and no sign of respite. Even so, there are moves to get football back, especially in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most affected cities, where the green light has just been given by local government. This leads on to the second factor. For the first few months of the year, football in Brazil is regional, with a separate championship held in each of the 27 states. These tournaments were interrupted in mid-March, and so they will probably resume as and when the game is able to restart.
Then comes the national championship, which was supposed to kick off a month ago. The 20 first-division clubs are drawn from nine different states, and in a country the size of a continent, huge differences exist in the scale of the coronavirus crisis across these regions. Some cities have health systems close to the point of collapse. In others the worst would appear to have passed. The logistical problems of organizing a national competition under such conditions are vast. It might make sense, some time later in the year, to take all of the teams to a lesser-affected area. This, if nothing else, would help ease the fixture pile-up caused by such a lengthy pause.
If all of the matches are played on a neutral ground, there is no possibility of the home-and-away double act. The teams need only meet each other once. Even in normal times, Brazil’s calendar is an effort to fit three litres into a bottle built for two. If competitions are going to be completed this year, then something will have to give.