A football World Cup qualifier in Brazil was abandoned last night after public health officials stormed onto the pitch to detain four Argentine players – who all play in the Premier League – for ‘dodging quarantine’ when they flew in from Britain.
The match was halted with just seven minutes on the clock when health officials stepped onto the field having been seen standing on the touchline, seemingly trying to identify the players at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.
Brazil says Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez and Emiliano Buendia and Tottenham’s Giovanni Lo Celso and Cristian Romero broke the law by failing to quarantine ahead of the match after flying in from the UK on a private jet.
The Argentina squad returned home right away, with the nation side’s official Twitter account posting a picture of some of the players on board a plane with the caption: ‘We are going home.’
Health authorities stormed the pitch in Brazil versus Argentina to detain four Premier League players
Christian Romero (top left), Giovani Lo Celso (top right), Emiliano Martinez (bottom left) and Emi Buendia (bottom right) are accused of breaking Brazil’s Covid-19 quarantine rules
The Argentina team’s Twitter account posted a group picture of some of the squad on board a plane with the caption: ‘We are going home!’
As reported exclusively by Sportsmail last week, the Premier League players had falsified documents, failing to declare they had come from the UK and should be deported or at least in quarantine, in line with Brazilian Covid protocol.
The four allegedly told immigration officers that in the previous 14 days they hadn’t been to Britain or anywhere else that Brazil puts on its own red list for COVID-19 risks.
Those who have been in countries on the so-called red list face a 14-day quarantine in Brazil.
The match in Sao Paulo was formally abandoned after an hour while still goalless.
A statement from the South American football governing body read: ‘The referee and the match commissioner will submit a report to the FIFA Disciplinary Committee, which will determine the steps to be followed. These procedures strictly adhere to current regulations.
‘The World Cup Qualifiers is a FIFA competition. All decisions concerning its organization and development are the exclusive power of that institution.’
Suddenly, the questions and the accusations flew, including from Argentina captain Lionel Messi.
According to RMC Sport, Argentina’s biggest star was heard saying: ‘We’ve been here for three days, we were waiting to play the match, why didn’t you come earlier? This is a mess, we’re off!’
The four players allegedly did not declare they had been in the UK on their entry forms to Brazil
‘It makes me very sad,’ said Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni. ‘If something happened or did not happen it was not the time to make this intervention.
‘It should have been a party for everyone, to enjoy the best players in the world. I would like the people of Argentina to understand that as a coach I have to defend my players. At no time were we notified that they could not play the match. We wanted to play the game, the players from Brazil too.’
This was a meeting between bitter South American rivals like no other, back in Brazil just nine weeks after the Copa America final at the Maracana, when Argentina won 1-0 and ended a 28-year wait for a major trophy.
Preparations had been blighted by the travel bans and Covid restrictions in force from various governments, particularly significant for the availability of English-based players.
Following the chaos and confusion, Argentina’s players walked off the pitch at the scenes
Brazil were without 11 of those originally selected by boss Tite. Nine of them, from Premier League clubs, not released to avoid the strict 10-day quarantine on their return.
And two players from Zenit St Petersburg, who were recalled by their club in the hope they would be able to enter the UK and play against Chelsea in the Champions League next week.
Argentina’s squad, in contrast, was full-strength because Aston Villa struck a deal for Martinez and Buendia to travel despite the quarantine on their return, and Lo Celso and Romero joined them in defiance of Tottenham.
However, less than four hours before kick-off in Sao Paulo there was a fresh twist.
Brazil’s health agency Anvisa issued a statement claiming the four Argentina players had entered the country illegally when they arrived from Venezuela on Friday because they failed to declare they had been within the UK within the previous 14 days, thus breaking a portaria — an entry rule — created at the height of concern about the Delta variant.
The four English-based players all left the UK despite the Premier League stopping teams from playing in red list countries
According to the Portaria 655 anyone who has been in the UK, India or South Africa must quarantine for 14 days.
As the game was held up, Anvisa director Antonio Barra Torres went live on Globo TV in Brazil, to explain that the federal police had gone to the Argentina team hotel earlier in the day and ordered the four English-based players not to take part in the game but, instead, to enter quarantine.
The issue swirled around behind the scenes but the squad left as planned for the Neo Quimica Arena and took to the pitch. Buendia, Villa’s record signing, did not make the bench but the other three started for Argentina for Scaloni’s team.
The players walked out, stood to observe the national anthems and the game got under way but very little happened, aside from a crunching Romero tackle, before the health agents and federal police began to appear on the touchline.
Venezuelan referee Jesus Valenzuela stopped the game and the discussions intensified, and the Argentina team walked off the pitch, back down the tunnel and back to their dressing room.
The Brazilians remained on the pitch, advised not to leave so no one could accuse them of forfeiting the contest, further down the line.
Argentina icon Lionel Messi (centre) walks off the pitch as authorities suspended the match
Argentina’s Marcos Acuna and Nicolas Otamendi remonstrate with a Brazilian health official
Scaloni and captain Messi reappeared, in and out of good-natured talks with Brazilian star man Neymar, captain Casemiro, manager Tite and sporting director Juninho Paulista, the former Middlesbrough talisman.
Players mingled in the tunnel, many of them smiling and joking. Outside, the farce unfolded before a crowd limited to just 1,500 invited guests. There was no sign of Martinez, Lo Celso, Romero or Buendia, the players at the centre of the problem.
About 45 minutes after the game was halted, the Brazil players were called together in a large huddle on the pitch by Tite and, soon afterwards, came confirmation that the qualifier would not be played. At least not on this day.
Brazil assembled for a training session on the pitch and Argentina prepared to leave the stadium under police escort.
A statement was released by Conmebol, the governing body of South American football, to say that the match referee and match commissioner would submit a report to FIFA’s disciplinary committee.
This was a FIFA competition, they added, and the next step would be down to them.