On March 12, the fiercest of Brazilian rivals Internacional and Gremio played out the last major game in front of a crowd in the Copa Libertadores before the coronavirus enforced shutdown.
This week, the Porto Alegre rivals will become the first big Brazilian clubs to resume training -- Inter on Tuesday, and Gremio due to start the following day. There is still no firm idea of when football will resume. One thing is for sure, the only firm idea at the moment is that the subject will be controversial.
The coronavirus death toll in Brazil has risen to nearly 7,500, with specialists expecting the peak to occur over the next two months. Meanwhile, neighboring countries that have suffered less are being much more cautious. In Argentina, for example, December is currently seen as the most likely month for a footballing restart, while Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro makes no secret of his wish for the game to return sooner rather than later. His new health minister Nelson Teich has been debating the idea with the football authorities, some of whom are also keen on a swift resumption. Bolsonaro argues that there is little risk, since the players are young, healthy athletes.
But what about the players? Brazil has little history of footballing militancy, but under the umbrella of the National Federation of Professional Athletes (FENAPAF), the athletes' union, a group of high-profile players issued a video statement. Sixteen players from 12 leading clubs read out a statement, each one speaking a line. The names include Diego and Everton Ribeiro of Flamengo, Corinthians goalkeeper Cassio and Palmeiras' Felipe Melo. Almost all of the big clubs from the main centres of Rio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte are represented, though there is no one from Porto Alegre.
Diego kicks off, declaring that "this is a time for unity." The players stress that they love football and are anxious to return, but, as veteran Atletico Mineiro keeper Victor states, "we need to think of the health of everyone." Indeed, the fact that president Bolsonaro sees the risk to the players as "infinitely small" is neither here nor there. The problem is those with whom they -- and others involved in the spectacle -- come into contact with. Everton Ribeiro emphasizes the need for "safe working conditions," before Felipe Melo -- a player who has often voiced his support for Bolsonaro -- closes the statement with the declaration that "together we'll win this game."
The use of Felipe Melo to close the video is clear evidence of a conciliatory tone. There is no general desire for conflict with Brazil's president, who continues to enjoy plenty of support from Brazil's football community. And there is another area in which the video is treading on eggshells.
All of these players are high-profile, their text recognizes that the vast majority of Brazil's footballers earn little, and that many have a professional calendar that lasts three of four months a year. The economic pressures on these players are far greater than those on the far better-paid stars of the elite clubs. In fact, the longer the shutdown goes on, the more likely it becomes that some clubs will no longer be viable as professional.
But the need for caution has been highlighted this week. Among those losing their lives to the coronavirus was Jorginho, the massage specialist with Flamengo since 1980 and part of Brazil's back-up staff for their 2002 World Cup triumph.
The news came as a jolt to the hopes for a quick restart in Rio de Janeiro -- a restart that was already being strongly opposed by Botafogo, one of Flamengo's main rivals. Botafogo director Carlos Augusto Montenegro made it very clear that his team would not be returning to action anytime soon and were more than happy to pay the penalty. "Any points that are taken away from us will be a life saved," he added.
The Rio football federation had just authorized a return to training, but it was halted by the local government -- in Brazil, it is the local governments who are enforcing social distancing while Bolsonaro's central government questions its consequences.
For the moment, then, there are lots of forces pulling in different directions. But the show cannot go on without the players -- and this week, Brazil's footballers have shown they are worried about the possibility of a premature resumption of play.