Brazil VS Argentina. Neymar VS Messi. The history of rivalry between the teams and the names on the teamsheet for the match is enough to understand why the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifier between the two South American heavyweights scheduled on 5 September was one of the most anticipated matches in 2021.
But no more than 10 minutes after kickoff had passed before Brazil's health ministry officials stormed onto the pitch to order the game to be halted. According to the government agency, Premier League and Argentinian players Emiliano Martinez, Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Romero and Emiliano Buendia failed to comply with entry regulations for travellers.
Rules introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19 prohibit non-Brazilians from entering the country if they have passed through the United Kingdom, South Africa, Northern Ireland and India in the past 14 days.
In a statement issued hours before the match, Brazilian health regulator Anvisa accused the four players of providing false information on immigration forms and ordered them to self-isolate immediately, Xinhua reported.
"Anvisa considers the situation a serious health risk, and therefore advised the local health authorities to determine the immediate quarantine of players, who are prevented from participating in any activity and should not remain in Brazilian territory," the agency said.
Players and coaches from both teams, including Argentina captain Lionel Messi and Brazil star Neymar, spoke at length with the Anvisa officials after play was stopped. Messi was heard asking why the fixture was allowed to start if officials already knew of the protocol breach.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni echoed Messi's sentiments, questioning why officials had decided to wait until the game started to take action. Argentina arrived in Brazil on Friday.
"It makes me very sad. I'm not looking for any culprits. Irrespective of whether or not there was any wrongdoing, it was not the time to make that intervention," Scaloni said.
"It should have been a match to be enjoyed by everyone, a chance to see 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," Scaloni added.
To these comments, various reports state that the Brazilian health officials were trying but unable to meet the Argentinian players until the day of the match. And inside the stadium, they were allegedly prevented from entering the dressing room of Argentina's national team due to the locked door.
After the events unfolded, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) argued that the protocols set by the health officials were invalid and they were following a different set of protocols that were set during the Copa America 2021. According to reports, both CONMEBOL and Brazil's federal government agreed to let the Argentinian players play according to these set of protocols. But in the end, Brazil's health authorities had a different idea in mind and urged the match to be stopped.
The AFA was the first to announce the suspension of the match, followed by CONMEBOL, the governing body for the sport in South America. It's still unclear if and when the match will be resumed or replayed.
Soon enough, the Brazilian federation released a statement which included the following:
Claudio Tapia, the president of the Argentinian Football Association, refuted suggestions the Albiceleste had knowingly contravened Brazil's health guidelines. "You can't talk about anybody lying because there is a health legislation under which all South American [football] tournaments are played," he told reporters.
He added, "The health authorities of each country approved a protocol that we have been closely complying with. What happened today is regrettable for football."
(With inputs from IANS)