CONMEBOL suspends March World Cup qualifiers after clubs' refusal to release players

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The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) has suspended March's doubleheader of World Cup qualifiers for Qatar 2022 amid concern over the COVID-19 pandemic and strict quarantine restrictions.

"The CONMEBOL Council decided to suspend the double date of the Qualifiers for Qatar 2022 scheduled for March," a statement from CONMEBOL said on Saturday. "The decision is due to the impossibility of having all the South American players in a timely manner.

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"FIFA will analyze the rescheduling of the date, in coordination with CONMEBOL and the member associations. Soon, the different options for holding the matches will be studied."

The 10 South American teams were due to play two games on March 25-26 and March 30, but CONMEBOL acknowledged tightening lockdown and quarantine regulations mean many of the European-based players will be unable to travel.

Among the matches affected are Brazil's games against Argentina and Colombia, and the River Plate derby between Argentina and Uruguay.

Each team have played four of their 18 qualifiers.

The top four in the 10-team group qualify automatically for Qatar and the fifth-placed side go into an inter-regional playoff.

The move to postpone the matches comes after prominent managers such as Manchester City's Pep Guardiola and Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp spoke out against releasing players for the games.

"I think it makes no sense if the players go to the national team and then have to isolate for 10 days when they come back. It makes no sense," Guardiola said on Friday. "We've worked incredibly tough for seven, eight or nine months and after the international break comes the real part of the season, and important players, maybe six, seven, eight, nine players cannot play for 10 days, it makes no sense. They are not going to fly. That's for sure."

Klopp questioned the feasibility of players having to isolate upon their return.

"I think all the clubs agree that we cannot just let the boys go and solve the situation when they come back, with our players having a 10-day quarantine in a hotel or whatever," Klopp said.

"That is just not possible. I understand the need of the different FAs, but this is a time when we cannot make everybody happy. So we have to admit that the players are paid by the clubs, which means we have to be first priority. That's how it is."

All 10 South American countries feature on the U.K. government's "red list" travel ban, which does not include exemptions for athletes and sports people. Any U.K.-based players who went to South America would face 10 days in hotel quarantine on return.

Further complicating matters, Colombia on Friday said it would not allow a Brazilian charter flight to land, throwing the March 26 game between the two nations into doubt.

"The chance of receiving any flight from Brazil is very remote, there's no way to justify the arrival of a charter flight," the minister, Fernando Ruiz, said in a statement released on Friday.

Sources told ESPN that one alternative option discussed was playing the qualifiers in a "bubble" in a European city. Recent Champions League and Europa League matches have been played in neutral venues in Athens, Bucharest, and Budapest.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.