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Brazil need to think twice about restarting football too soon amidst coronavirus outbreak

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro is in favour of football starting back up soon, but that could be a dangerous decision for everyone involved.

The number of coronavirus deaths in Brazil has now surpassed 5,000. The daily death toll has recently outstripped Italy, and specialists debate whether the country might be the next epicenter of the virus. Despite all that, Brazil could become the first South American country where football returns.

Meanwhile, the Colombian FA, for example, drew up a detailed protocol of measures to be taken in order for football to be played -- behind closed doors, of course. The Colombian government were quick to warn of excessive haste.

In stark contrast, the Brazilian government would seem to be actively in favour of sport resuming. "The football authorities have already come to me," said controversial President Jair Bolsonaro, "and if it depends on me they have my vote" for a swift return.

Bolsonaro, who often can be seen wearing football shirts, added that it would have to be approved by the Ministry of Health. But he recently fired the minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta, on the grounds that he was too much in favour of the economic shutdown and the programme of social distancing. Brazil's president, who has frequently downplayed the risks of the coronavirus, replaced Mandetta with Nelson Teich, who seems to be a more pliable figure.

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"There has been a request from the CBF [Brazil's football association]," said Teich in a recent news conference, "to evaluate the return of football behind closed doors. We're still studying it. But these are initiatives which, in some way, could help bring a better routine for people, because the shutdown has a very negative impact on the well-being of the population."

The position of the government, then, would seem to be clear. They would like football to be back, and soon.

That is also the opinion of many football directors, as there is a unique Brazilian angle to the current situation, which has to do with the difficulties of organizing a calendar in a country the size of a continent.

Brazil is divided into 27 states. Much of the history of the game is based around local rivalries, in the fight to be crowned state champion. There were forerunners and prototypes, but only since 1971 has there been a genuine national championship. These days the state tournaments are squeezed into the first few months of the year, with the national championship usually kicking off in early May.

This creates problems even in good times. The Brazilian calendar already crams in more matches than ideally should be played. The question now is this; what to do with this year's state championships? When the shutdown struck, these tournaments were starting to move towards the final straight.

The state championships are, these days, of limited relevance, and the logical approach might be to scrap them for this year and move right on with the national tournament. That would a bitter blow -- in some cases an unmitigated disaster -- for the state federations and the small clubs not involved in national competition. So the quicker football returns, the more time there is available to finish off the state championships.

The players are starting to feel the pressure and wonder if they might be forced to endure unnecessary risks in order to entertain the public. It is a fear shared by Alexandre Pato, the former AC Milan striker who is currently with Sao Paulo and took to social media to express his viewpoint. "The return of football? I miss playing football, but at the same time I know how much I prize my health," he wrote. "I'm watching these moves they're taking to bring the game back. But is that the best scenario today?"

The tentative tone betrays the relative powerlessness of the Brazilian player. Unlike some other countries in the continent, there is no deep tradition of footballing militancy, no great tradition of strike action.

Protection at the moment is coming from local government -- the state and municipal authorities who are responsible for the social distancing measures. In the southern state of Santa Catarina, for example, the football authorities were keen on May 16 as a restart date -- but ran into a veto from the state government. Meanwhile, the economic shutdown is being extended in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

For the time being, then, the ball is not rolling in the land of the five-time world champions. But given the importance of the sport to Brazil's national identity, the issue of the return date is likely to hang in the air, a political football waiting to be crashed into the back of the net

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