Players not released for FIFA World Cup qualifiers: Explaining the moves by Premier League, La Liga

The English Premier League’s decision not to release players for World Cup qualifiers played in the UK’s red-list countries is set to impact multiple national teams battling for a berth in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The decision is spurred by EPL clubs not wanting to see their star players sit out matches on their return because of quarantine restrictions by the UK government, which did not provide players an exemption from its rules. Players returning from the UK’s red-list countries would have to quarantine for a full 10 days in a managed quarantine hotel. That timetable would force players who traveled for national team matches to miss two Premier League matches, a UEFA club competition matchday and the third round of the League Cup (Carabao Cup).

According to its statement, the EPL’s announcement affects 60 players from 19 Premier League clubs who were due to travel to 26 red-list countries. Among the countries on the list are all 10 South American nations involved in CONMEBOL regional World Cup qualifiers, as well as three of the eight nations in the final round of CONCACAF regional qualifying: Panama, Mexico and Costa Rica. The only European countries on the UK’s red list are Georgia and Turkey.

Does the EPL decision affect the USA & Canada

The U.S. and Canada men’s national teams are not impacted by the Premier League’s decision given that their scheduled travel for the three World Cup qualifiers to be played in September do not involve red-list countries. The USA plays in El Salvador (Sept. 2), at home against Canada in Nashville (Sept. 5) and in Honduras (Sept. 8), while two of Canada’s matches will be on home soil (Sept. 2 and Sept. 8) in addition to the match against the USA.

The Premier League indicated that it was forced to make this decision after FIFA did not extend its temporary release exception for players required to quarantine on their return to their clubs following international duty. FIFA implemented that exception for international matches during the pandemic beginning in August 2020, allowing clubs not to release players to their national teams if they were forced to quarantine upon their return to their clubs based on local government regulations.

“Clubs have reluctantly but rightly come to the conclusion that it would be entirely unreasonable to release players under these new circumstances,” Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters said in a league statement. “Quarantine requirements mean that players’ welfare and fitness will be significantly impacted. We understand the challenges that exist in the international match calendar and remain open to workable solutions.”

Spain’s La Liga followed the Premier League’s lead and announced that it would support its clubs’ decision not to release players who were called up by their South American nations.

La Liga clubs and other members of the European Club Association (ECA) are particularly incensed because on Aug. 6 FIFA extended the South American international window by three days in September and October to allow for the playing of two rounds of World Cup qualifiers that were canceled because of the pandemic.

What is FIFA saying about this?

In its announcement, the Premier League said that it urged world governing body FIFA to “work with all stakeholders to ensure an agreeable conclusion can be reached on the issue.” That stance was echoed by the European Club Association, which, according to The Associated Press, went a step further and called it “entirely unreasonable” for the FIFA quarantine exemption not to be extended to the upcoming rounds of international matches.

“ECA will not accept that a governing body like FIFA abuses its regulatory function in order to place its commercial interests and those of its member associations above the physical wellbeing of players and legitimate sporting interests of clubs,” read a letter by the ECA to its member clubs as cited by the AP.

FIFA has yet to issue a statement on the decisions by the European leagues. But South American media members have shared a letter dated Aug. 23 from FIFA president Gianni Infantino to the South American federation president which states that clubs could face action from FIFA.

“FIFA’s administration will proceed to reiterate to the respective member associations and the affected clubs the regulations that they are subject to, as well as the consequences of any breach,” reads a section of the letter as translated from its original Spanish version.

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