COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on international soccer

COVID-19 isn't going anywhere.

Despite the start of vaccination campaigns -- slow in the United States, slower in Europe and nonexistent in much of the rest of the world -- and lowering case rates, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreck havoc on soccer and other sports.

The new threat is the spread of new COVID variants with high transmission rates and potential resistance to vaccines and natural immunity. The problem is a particular concern for international competitions.

News on two fronts underscored the impact of the ongoing pandemic as it related to international travel restrictions.

Concacaf World Cup 2022 qualifying. In a media call, Canadian Victor Montagliani, the Concacaf president, said the start of World Cup 2022 qualifying in March might have to take place at a neutral site.

Canada is one of 30 teams entered in the preliminary round that will qualify three teams into the new Octagonal to which the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica have qualified directly.

Teams have been placed in six five-team groups that will place across five dates in March and five more in June before the six group winners pair off in two-game series in the second half of the expanded June window.

"Listen, it's not going to be as easy as it was before, when you just got on a plane and you play or you play at home," Montagliani said. "Obviously, no fans for probably the vast majority of these games, if not all of them. There'll be neutral venues for some of them. Canada, I would think, would be a neutral venue. Although it would be a home game, it would still be a neutral venue."

The problem for Concacaf is that it has already changed the qualifying format once and postponed the start of qualifying by six months due to the pandemic and can't afford any more delays.

FIFA has already added a third date to two windows (September  2021 and October 2021), added a new window with an unprecedented four games (January 2022) and extended regional qualifying into March 2022 in order for the Concacaf complete the 14-game Octagonal on top of the 12 dates needed in March and June for the preliminary round. (After all that, there will an intercontinental playoff in June 2022 for the Concacaf fourth-place team.)

Most of the 30 teams, including Canada, have not played an international match in the last year. Many are from small islands in the Caribbean for which travel is complicated on good days. Given all the issues at play, it will be a surprise if all 30 teams complete qualifying.

UEFA Champions League knockout stage. Of more immediate concern is the resumption of play in the UEFA Champions League, where the round of 16 begins in less than two weeks.

As it stands now, the Feb. 16 match between 2020 Champions League semifinalist RB Leipzig with American Tyler Adams and Liverpool in Leipzig won't take place because the Premier League champion has been banned from entering Germany by its Ministry of the Interior.

During the group stage of the Champions League and Europa League and for other competitions in the fall, players and staff were typically given exemptions as elite athletes from COVID-related travel restrictions or protocols that would have compromised their participation in international play.

That has changed as the German government has banned travel by almost all non-German citizens and residents from the United Kingdom and other high-risk countries in a bid to stop the spread of the highly contagious new British variant, and it has made no exceptions for elite athletes.

Right now, Leipzig's options are:

1. Move the first leg to a neutral site;
2. Switch dates and play the first leg at Liverpool with the hope that restrictions will be relaxed for the second leg on April 2.

UEFA holds the home team responsible for organizing the match, so RB Leipzig would have to forfeit its home leg if it couldn't be played.

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