In normal circumstances, Union midfielder José Andrés Martínez getting a Venezuelan national team call-up would be cause for celebration. But right now, it’s a cause for worry.
Martínez is one of many South American players caught in a worldwide tug-of-war between national teams and clubs ahead of the Oct. 7-15 FIFA window, which is headlined by the start of the continent’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
With the coronavirus pandemic still having no firm end in sight, FIFA has relaxed its rule obliging clubs to release players for national team games. Last month, it allowed clubs to keep their players if they’d be subject to lengthy quarantines.
This month, according to the New York Times, FIFA changed its stance. The global governing body is planning to let clubs keep players who have been called up for friendlies, but if players are called up to games that count, they have to be released.
That has drawn the ire of Major League Soccer and top European leagues that worry players could bring COVID-19 back with them. The Times reported that MLS moved to block its players from going, but FIFA will force the leagues to let them go.
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Union manager Jim Curtin said Wednesday that the team is trying to negotiate an agreement that will keep Martínez here without offending him or costing him future national team opportunities.
“There’s been dialogue with the league, there’s been dialogue with Venezuela, there’s been dialogue with us to come to a solution that makes the most sense,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Wednesday.
The scale of the matter is clear. Venezuela plays at Colombia on Oct. 9, then hosts Paraguay on Oct. 13. If the Union are forced to release Martínez, he’d travel in and out of three countries, with however many connections would be needed along the way.
Many players in MLS earned preliminary spots on South American national teams' World Cup qualifying rosters. Not every nation has released its squads yet, but the known players include Martínez (Venezuela), Orlando’s Pedro Gallese (Peru), Seattle’s Raúl Ruidíaz (Peru), New York City’s Alexander Callens (Peru), Los Angeles FC’s Diego Rossi and Brian Rodríguez (both Uruguay), the New York Red Bulls' Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra (Paraguay), and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Cristian Pavón (Argentina).
Any players who leave the U.S. will have to quarantine for 10 days upon returning. That means they wouldn’t be able to play again until almost the end of the regular season on Nov. 8. And if they have to leave early to quarantine in their home nations upon arrival, they’d be out even longer.
The rules don’t just apply to South Americans. Real Salt Lake’s Slovakian midfielder Albert Rusnák will miss six of the club’s last nine games because he’s going to play for his country, which has three games in the FIFA window. First, there’s a European Championship qualifying playoff at home against Ireland, then two Nations League contests: at Scotland and home against Israel.
So that’s Salt Lake City to Bratislava to Glasgow to Trnava, then back to Salt Lake City.
MLS usually celebrates its players’ national team exploits, and rightly so. If Pavón plays with Lionel Messi for Argentina, for example, that would be a big deal. If Rusnák helps Slovakia reach the Euros, that’s big too. And if Rossi and Rodríguez play for Uruguay against Chile (Oct. 8) and Ecuador (Oct. 13), they’ll likely add to their fast-rising transfer values.
“Getting called into your national team, it’s the biggest honor that there is in our sport, and it might even have a little more weight for the South American players in the league because they’re that much more passionate about the opportunity to play for their national teams,” Curtin said. “It means so much and there are so many great players over there, so it’s highly competitive.”
But the health risks are huge, and Curtin needs no reminding. His team still has a week to go before it can officially say it escaped catching COVID-19 from FC Cincinnati’s Nick Hagglund last week — a game in which Martínez played.
“This is the kind of tough situation that everybody’s in right now," Curtin said. “It’s going to be really tough to keep everybody 100% happy.”