Liam Morgan

Debate has raged this week over the failure from footballers to adhere to the Premier League’s COVID-19 guidelines.

The flouting of rules, particularly those banning handshakes and hugging, has been the subject of increased scrutiny as Britain grapples with a significant spike in coronavirus cases following the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19.

It has sparked stern warnings from the Government, with Ministers effectively telling players to stop breaching the guidelines or else the Premier League will be halted again - although these have been perceived by some as a move to detract from Boris Johnson and Co’s shambolic handling of the pandemic.

Football can be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu here as the industry as a whole has frequently been scapegoated throughout the crisis, especially in Britain.

Remember the last height of the pandemic in April, when players were criticised by the Government for not taking pay cuts, despite the fact their salaries contribute billions in tax.

Premier League players have been criticised for hugging while celebrating ©Getty Images
Premier League players have been criticised for hugging while celebrating ©Getty Images

Of course, there have been occasions where footballers have not helped themselves. A handful of players have broken COVID-19 rules, ranging from large gatherings at Christmas to "sex parties", which hardly sends the right message to the public in a country that has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

While the vast majority of players have followed the letter of the law, and they are not the only ones to have fallen foul of the rules, these instances have still happened and some feel once is too many, given the role-model status they have in the community.

Under "Project Restart", the Premier League resumed in June and has been pretty much omnipresent on our television screens ever since, albeit with the raucous lifeblood of the sport absent from the stands.

During that time, players have been captured hugging and shaking hands (the latter of which managers have also been guilty of, in some cases leading to the awkward fist bump/handshake combination).

The topic has taken on extra prominence as the virus surges throughout the population and led to the Premier League issuing updated guidance last week.

"Everyone in the country has had to change the way they interact with people and ways of working. Footballers are no exception," British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said on Twitter.

"COVID secure guidelines exist for football. Footballers must follow them and football authorities enforce them - strictly."

Cracking down on celebrations is, however, easier said than done. As several managers have pointed out this week, stopping a spontaneous act such as hugging is difficult, particularly with the emotion involved and what is at stake.

Everyone involved in the Premier League, from players to coaches to other team staff, are frequently tested, probably more than anyone else in the country, while the game is played outdoors, where the risk of transmission is dramatically lower.

"People have ingrained habits when a goal is scored," said Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson. 

"The emotion and joy of that moment, there is a risk players will still run to each other. I don't know what managers and coaches can do more than hammer home the messages and protocols."

On the other hand, it seems a small sacrifice to make to ensure the show can go on.

Football has continued in England despite the country battling a significant surge in COVID-19 cases ©Getty Images
Football has continued in England despite the country battling a significant surge in COVID-19 cases ©Getty Images

Players in other leagues have shown it can be done, too. The first major European match post-lockdown, a Bundesliga encounter between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke in May, was notable for socially-distanced celebrations, which carried on in subsequent games in the German top-flight.

A combination of general adherence to the rules, and the leagues who have put them in place, has enabled football to carry on during the pandemic. It would be a crying shame if a few hugs and handshakes spoil all the good work that has gone before.

But players should be wary of how football provides a welcome relief from day-to-day life, which has been torrid for millions across the world. They owe it to supporters, most of whom have been confined to their armchairs because of the pandemic, to comply.

Australian Open preparations in chaos as positive tests on chartered planes force 47 into quarantine

Such is the concern over the new COVID-19 variants, discovered in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, that some believe it is not appropriate for elite sport to carry on at all as disruption to everyday life continues.

A host of Australians who do not live in their native country have criticised more than 1,200 people arriving for a tennis tournament, while they remain unable to return.

"I can't comprehend the fact that one week they announce they're halving the caps for citizens and the following week they announce they've found 1,200 spaces for tennis players and support staff," a key worker from Sydney, now living in London, told the BBC.

It is easy to draw comparisons, but it is worth noting here that players will be extensively tested and will not – supposedly, anyway - be engaging with anyone outside of the tournament bubble.

More than 1,200 people have arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open ©Getty Images
More than 1,200 people have arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open ©Getty Images

Yet those plans have been thrown into chaos as 47 people have been placed into quarantine after passengers on two chartered planes to Melbourne tested positive for COVID-19.

Players are already subject to a 14-day quarantine period upon arrival in Melbourne, although they would have been permitted to leave their hotels for up to five hours a day to train.

But those that were on board the two planes will be unable to practice for a fortnight as they will be confined to their rooms.

The tournament is due to begin on February 8, but there have been fresh calls for another delay following the latest development - which will certainly not be the last before the Grand Slam event gets underway.