GENEVA (AP) — With 3,000 soccer players due to travel internationally for World Cup qualifying games next month, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said on Monday all will conform to health rules in the coronavirus pandemic.
“We will certainly not take any risk for the health of anyone when we play football,” Infantino said in a World Health Organization news conference.
Delays in the 2022 World Cup qualifying program in most continents led FIFA last year to create new games dates next January. They will help make up the backlog in an increasingly tight schedule with broadcasting rights already sold.
In Asia, 40 national teams are due on March 25 to resume qualifying groups that last played in November 2019.
A total of 135 teams are due to play World Cup qualifiers next month, and 48 more have preliminary games for the 2022 African Cup of Nations.
“We will see where we can play, in what conditions,” the FIFA leader said, pledging to “do it by adhering to a clear health protocol.”
“We can see and we have been hearing earlier today from Dr. Tedros again that the situation is evolving week by week, day by day,” Infantino said, sitting beside WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Many of the players who return home for national duty play for clubs in Europe, including in England which is experiencing an aggressive new variant of COVID-19.
FIFA eased its rules last year that require clubs to release players to national teams. Exemptions were offered if players had to travel to countries imposing mandatory quarantine or self-isolation for at least five days upon arrival or their return.
Asked if FIFA expected stadiums to be full when the World Cup opens in Qatar in November 2022, Infantino said: “Yes. We must have this.”
“COVID will be defeated by then,” he said, at a briefing on FIFA’s latest work with WHO.
FIFA will use the six-team Club World Cup starting on Thursday in Qatar to promote messages on health safety and fair distribution of vaccines.
Infantino, who is a member of the International Olympic Committee, repeated the Olympic body’s view ahead of the Tokyo Games opening in July that athletes should not get inoculations before key workers.
“We don’t consider football players as a priority group in this respect,” he said.
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