FIFA’s leadership faced further criticism on Thursday with the French league opposing demands that players are released by clubs for World Cup qualifiers despite the logistical and health challenges posed by the pandemic.
Spanish clubs, in a similar move to the English Premier League, have now decided to tell players they will be blocked from going to South America for games. FIFA extended the international window next month to allow South American teams to play a third World Cup qualifier less than two days before domestic leagues are due to resume in Europe.
The French league said in a statement that it “regrets the total lack of consideration by FIFA of the interests of national championships and clubs as employers of players.”
It backed the position of the top divisions in England, Spain and Italy as well as the World Leagues’ Forum and European Club Association in questioning the conduct of Gianni Infantino’s FIFA in providing no flexibility on the release of players.
“This unilateral decision taken in the midst of a pandemic with strong constraints related to the movement of players and the resulting quarantine rules during their return from selection poses major problems for the availability of club staff and the balance of the championships,” the French league said.
It raises doubts about the prospect of Paris Saint-Germain’s Lionel Messi and new teammate Neymar playing against each other when Argentina and Brazil meet in a qualifier on Sept. 5. But the French league stopped short of saying there was a collective decision by clubs not to send players — as seen in England and Spain.
FIFA has told South American confederation CONMEBOL there would be consequences for clubs who don’t release players as required, which could mean disciplinary action.
The Spanish league said Thursday clubs unanimously decided during a meeting to take preventive judicial measures “to protect the rights and interests of the competition and of the affected clubs” who won’t be releasing players unless there is resolution.
In correspondence with FIFA seen by The Associated Press, European Club Association CEO Charlie Marshall wrote that the world governing body was “destabilizing the calendar” and acting in an “illegitimate manner” in breach of a 2015 agreement on the release of players.
“Whilst it is disappointing that FIFA has decided to disregard the positions of the stakeholders,” Marshall wrote to FIFA deputy secretary general Mattias Grafstrom, “it is especially reprehensible that FIFA has elected to ignore its contractual commitments to the ECA.”
In a letter earlier in August, Marshall reminded Grafstrom that the “pandemic is not over,” highlighting the need for players to be exempt from travel. Infantino this week issued a statement comparing the work in dealing with the pandemic with the need for national teams to have the players they want.
“Together we have shown solidarity and unity in the fight against COVID-19,” said Infantino, who FIFA declined to make available for interview. “Now, I am urging everyone to ensure the release of international players for the upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifiers.”
The particular challenge for English clubs releasing players to South American countries is that they are all on a red list where travel is advised against by British authorities and 10 days would have to be spent in hotel quarantine after flying back from them.
Some African nations, including Egypt, are also on the red list, which is why Liverpool was quick to block Mohamed Salah going to play World Cup qualifiers next week.
Infantino this week wrote to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking for players to be granted exemptions from quarantine. Players returning from many European countries on Britain’s amber list would only have to quarantine at home if they have not been fully vaccinated.
Over the last year, FIFA has freed clubs during the pandemic from obligations to release all players to national teams, but that relaxation of rules has not been extended.
AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Madrid contributed to this report.
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