'It's crazy, a mess' - South America looks back on chaotic World Cup qualifying round

Lionel Messi Neymar Brazil Argentina
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The biggest game of the round only lasted five minutes before an incredible pitch invasion by Brazilian authorities put an end to the action

An international break that began in August with the refusal of several top European leagues to release their players finally came to an end late on Thursday night, as Argentina stars Alejandro Gomez and Nicolas Otamendi danced a merry jig to a live Cumbia medley while Lionel Messi looked on in approval.

The festivities in front of a 30 per cent-full Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires were an uplifting way to set the seal on what had been a hugely controversial, problematic and at times bizarre round of World Cup qualifiers in South America. As of yet, there is no guarantee that things next time round will be any better.

Messi and Co. were feted by Argentina fans for the first time since their Copa America win in July, the Paris Saint-Germain ace once more overcome by emotion as he received the trophy to the cheers of a limited yet enthusiastic home crowd after downing Bolivia with a hat-trick in a simple 3-0 win.

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Some 3,000 miles to the north, meanwhile, Brazil were similarly dominant even with some 13 players ruled out to face Peru. Everton Ribeiro and Neymar struck in the first half to ensure Tite's charges strolled to an eighth consecutive qualifying victory that leaves them, even at this early stage, with one foot already in Qatar.

Nevertheless, those shameful scenes from Arena Corinthians and the suspended match against Argentina still hung heavily over the Selecao.

“The right decision is always to respect the law, people's health comes first,” the coach told reporters prior to the Peru game when asked about the episode, which saw officials from health agency ANVISA and the Brazilian police storm the field in an effort to apprehend members of the Argentina squad accused of falsifying quarantine information, bringing the game to a halt after just five minutes.

“Sport is important, but there is a scale of importance in which health ranks higher, the law comes first. I always value playing the game but if a mistake was committed, let the law be imposed for everyone.”

While nobody would presume to dispute Tite's assertions, the manner in which the law was implemented on that chaotic Sunday afternoon was curious to say the least.

Lionel Messi Neymar Brazil Argentina GFX

Having failed to stop Argentina's fugitive four from leaving the hotel arriving at Arena Corinthians, changing, singing the national anthem and - in Tottenham star Cristian Romero's case - leaving his mark on Neymar with a ferocious early tackle, government officials subsequently acknowledged that the visitors' request to excuse the players from quarantine laws – a step which has been commonplace during South American competitions like the Copa Libertadores as well as national team engagements – was not answered over the four-day weekend in Brazil due to Tuesday's Independence Day celebrations.

Not even FIFA chief Gianni Infantino could fully believe what he had seen, telling a conference: "It is crazy but we need to deal with these challenges, these issues which come on top of the Covid crisis."

In another surreal twist, the body's official report pointed the finger at one Fernando Batista as responsible for signing off on the dubious sanitary forms – but not only is the Argentina Under-20 coach unlikely to hold any type of administrative role, he was nowhere near Brazil at the time.

“I was coming out of River's training ground after watching their reserve game and my phone started ringing,” the perplexed Batista told ESPN . “I have nothing to do with this, I came back from the United States last Sunday and I have only just started my normal life after a week's isolation [in Argentina].

“I don't have the power to say, 'I have to sign this form', I'm just a coach. It's quite funny but I'm mad that my name has come up, I wasn't in Brazil or Venezuela.”

What is more, ANVISA chief Antonio Barra Torres aired a bombshell: that even had the Premier League relented, Brazil's players would have received the same treatment.

“This rule is exclusively for foreigners, but if the Brazilian footballers in the same condition had been in the United Kingdom in the last 14 days, they would not have been able to play,” he assured to ESPN , raising questions over why the likes of Alisson, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus would even have been called up in the first place.

Brazil and their neighbours certainly want the Premier League to pay dearly for its intransigence. A host of clubs face lining up without their stars this weekend as a result of their previous negative, although each argues that the UK government's strict red list guidelines must take precedent over FIFA laws (mirroring, ironically enough, Tite's own argument).

Alisson Liverpool GFX

Tottenham, meanwhile, are lining up their own internal punishments for Romero and Giovani Lo Celso, who apparently defied the club's wishes in hopping on a plane to represent their nation. Even Aston Villa, one of the few teams to side with its players by sending Emiliano Martinez and Emiliano Buendia for the first two games, are now having second thoughts.

"It is a mess. I don't quite understand how it happened but it was very regrettable and very damaging to sport, when we had done everything we could to come to an amicable and sensible arrangement with the Argentine FA to enable our players to play in very important games,” Villa chief executive Christian Purslow told the BBC in the wake of the Brazil debacle.

"We already have a significant congestion issue with World Cup qualifying games in South America so between now and October I really hope to see a sensible arrangement put in place because nobody wants to see a repeat of what happened.

"That would make any reasonable club executive feel incredibly nervous about releasing players for overseas travel while we are in the midst of this crisis."

In October, then, as Purslow says, we – or at least some players - will do it all over again. CONMEBOL stages another three qualifiers, while at some point Brazil's abortive clash with Argentina will also have to be squeezed into the calendar or else be definitively abandoned with the points going to one of the teams involved – most likely the former, given the nature of the interruption and the fact that FIFA allowed the players involved to take the field in full knowledge of the situation.

The onus is on all the parties involved to reach an accord and ensure that the organisational catastrophe witnessed these past weeks does not occur again in a month's time.

It is unbecoming of the world's finest footballers to be used as bargaining chips in disputes across federations and governments, not to mention face arrest on the pitch in the middle of a showpiece match.

Such situations are simply not acceptable, and a repeat of this wrangling would risk bringing the sport into further disrepute, as well as deepening the rift between organisations at a time where cooperation and solidarity is more important than ever before.

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