Flamengo of Rio are the reigning champions of Brazil; Palmeiras of Sao Paulo won the title the previous year, and are seen as Flamengo's biggest domestic rivals. So when this season's fixtures were published, many fans checked to find the date of the first clash of the titans.
Sept. 27 will live long in the memory, but not for the 1-1 draw that the teams fought out. More dramatic, more controversial, more important were all the legal machinations that went on before the kickoff -- events that cast an unforgiving light on the problems of organising football in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
In midweek Flamengo returned from Ecuador, where they had been playing two matches in the Copa Libertadores. As club president Rodolfo Landim revealed, protecting his delegation from the virus proved much more complicated on the road than when they are based in their own training complex. Flamengo suffered a mass outbreak of infections, including coach Domenec Torrent and 20 of their players. They did not want the game against Palmeiras to go ahead but the regulations governing this season have been drawn up with the primary aim of ensuring that the championship goes ahead, no matter how severe the circumstances.
Other clubs in Brazil have been forced to take the field with a number of players out of action -- Fluminense will be in action on Monday without nine players -- but Flamengo appealed to Brazil's football association (CBF), and to the sports justice system, only for their request to be rejected.
Palmeiras wanted to go ahead. On Saturday, though, a labour court in Rio upheld a request made by the local union of footballers and the game was suspended. It was clear that this would not be the last word and it was widely expected that the decision would be overturned, so, not wanting to take the risk of forfeiting points, Flamengo made the short flight to Sao Paulo and, albeit a bit late, arrived at the stadium.
Just 18 minutes before the scheduled kick off, it was announced that the suspension had been lifted by a higher version of the labour court, and the game would go ahead. The Flamengo players had not yet warmed up, and the game kicked off around 20 minutes late. Bearing in mind that their hurriedly assembled side had an average age of 21, Flamengo's performance in the 1-1 draw was creditable -- perhaps the only creditable aspect of a sorry episode in which everyone involved appeared more concerned with short-term individual advantage rather than with the common good.
Things are going to become more complicated, because the number of interested parties is about to grow. CONMEBOL's World Cup qualifiers are set to get under way next week, with the star players making their way home from destinations across the planet.
With Europe a base for the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez, there was initially a question over where European clubs would release players for international duty and that became the main stumbling block to the scheduling of the games. However, that was resolved over the course of two meetings in mid-September as FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced that players returning to Europe would not have to undergo quarantine restrictions, and, so, according to the regulations, their clubs would have to release them. The games could go ahead as planned.
It was a view of the world that overlooked the rise of Major League Soccer. A quarter of Peru's 28 man squad, including some of the most important names, are based in the USA (Pedro Gallese, Alexander Callens, Marco Lopez, Andy Polo, Raul Ruidiaz, Yordy Reyna and Edison Flores). Venezuela's preliminary list also has seven MLS players (Miguel Navarro, Rolf Feltscher, Cristian Cassares, Jose Martinez, Junior Moreno, Roddy Zambrano and Johann Cadiz). And Paraguay have four (Christian Paredes, Jesus Medina, Gaston Gimenez and Alejandro Romero Gamarra.)
The start of the CONCACAF qualifiers have been put back to March. The coronavirus situation is no less severe in South America and, as highlighted by Flamengo's experience in Ecuador, the risks are greater when teams are on the road as everyone in South America will be in a double header that includes one home game and one away.
If the players face quarantine restrictions on their return to the USA, as seems likely, then MLS clubs can make a case for not releasing them. MLS have made this point -- and CONMEBOL president Alejando Dominguez hit back as he published a letter he sent to Infantino, calling on the FIFA president to step in. But the problem for Dominguez will get much worse if, emboldened by the MLS response, the European clubs become reluctant to release.
True, there may not be quarantine restrictions. But it is hard to deny that there is a health risk. And so the wrangling behind the scenes over the next few days may prove every bit as tense as the events that led up to the game between Palmeiras and Flamengo.