Rio soccer league to return Thursday despite coronavirus

SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazilian soccer will make a partial return on Thursday after a three-month suspension caused by the coronavirus pandemic despite protests from sports executives who think it is too risky to start playing.

The governing body of soccer in Rio de Janeiro announced Wednesday that Flamengo and Bangu will play in an empty Maracanã Stadium in the local league. Local giant Vasco da Gama will host Macaé at São Januário Stadium on Sunday.

The return is a victory for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Flamengo, who have teamed up to lobby for the return of soccer. Rodolfo Landim, the president of the club, was in the capital Brasilia with the president when Rio’s soccer body announced the fixtures.

More than 45,000 people have died because of the virus in Brazil, and health specialists say the peak of the crisis is yet to come in August. In Rio state, where 16 million people live, more than 8,000 people have died of COVID-19 so far.

There is no date for the beginning of the Brazilian championship, which was scheduled to start in May. Clubs in other state leagues are only contemplating a return in July if health authorities agree.

Two other top Rio clubs have rejected the move to start games. Fluminense and Botafogo have threatened to take the case to sports courts to avoid an early return.

Still, Rio’s soccer body said Fluminense and Botafogo are scheduled to play on Monday against Volta Redonda and Cabofriense, respectively.

After the announcement, Botafogo president Nelson Mufarrej said team players will return to training on Saturday and need 15 days to prepare. The club said Tuesday that five of its players had been infected with the coronavirus, but all recovered well.

In a meeting that ended late Tuesday, the head of Rio’s soccer body criticized Botafogo and Fluminense.

“The good student, who studied, prepared for the test, came here to do it. But the student that did not prepare wants to postpone it,” Rubens Lopes said.

Flamengo and Vasco have trained for almost three weeks, at times going against recommendations of local health authorities.

Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella said Wednesday after a meeting with club executives that those that want to wait until July to play again should be allowed to do that, without facing risk of punishment.

“At this moment we need to take into consideration that each one reacts differently,” Crivella said. “Just picture what happens if Botafogo and Fluminense lose for not showing up during the coronavirus (pandemic). People will not understand that. As a Botafogo fan I would be sad.”

Brazil’s president is one of the few leaders in the world that downplays the risks of COVID-19. He has insisted that social isolation measures are more dangerous to the survival of Brazilians than the economic crisis that has already hit the country. He has long advocated for soccer’s return.

Also on Wednesday, Brazil’s most populous state and the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus pandemic allowed soccer clubs to return to training on July 1st. Sao Paulo Gov. João Doria announced the decision on the same day a record 389 fatalities from COVID-19 were confirmed in the state of 46 million people.

Sao Paulo state has seen more than 11,000 deaths caused by the virus. The only soccer team in the region that is already training is Red Bull Bragantino, which rose to Brazil’s top division last year. The club sponsored by the energy drink maker had been given approval by the small city of Bragança Paulista, where it is based, to return to action.

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