This weekend’s main event in LaLiga, Atlético Madrid vs Barcelona at the Metropolitano, has every football fan in Spain looking forward to Saturday but the game has been deprived of the chance to see Luis Suárez go up against his former side and his good friend Leo Messi. The presence of the Uruguay international was an essential ingredient in football terms and also for the pure curiosity of seeing Suárez in action against the club he served so well but which ejected him under a cloud last summer, with Atlético providing the perfect refuge for the combative striker. However, both Suárez and Lucas Torreira tested positive for covid-19 while on international duty where a photograph emerged of the Uruguay squad enjoying their mates and a succulent lunch in each other’s company, with now sadly inevitable results.
It cannot be determined if the players picked up the coronavirus as a direct result of this scene. It could have happened at any given time. And Uruguay are hardly an isolated case of fraternal mingling during the FIFA break. As José Mourinho recently noted, isolation and social distancing measures are far less strict on the international stage than at club level and several high-profile players including Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappé have tested positive while away with their countries. As well as a traditional loosening of club regulations, players from various leagues convene after travelling from all around the world and families and old colleagues visit team hotels. Every round of FIFA fixtures is an opportunity for the virus to get a foot in the door.
Atlético to improvise in absence of Suárez
But the loss of Suárez for Saturday’s game is certainly a shame for the spectators. Diego Simeone has explained how the arrival of the forward has altered Atlético’s style, which is now more attacking as had been increasingly demanded by fans. “We have to supply more ammunition for him up front,” Simeone said, to a chorus of approval. It is particularly welcome at a time when LaLiga has become the most goal-shy of the “big five” leagues with more and more coaches adopting the Simeone line of sitting back and waiting for the opponent to make an error. Twenty years ago, games between Atlético and Barcelona rained goals. They were encounters where the chalkboard went out the window before kick-off. I had hoped that Saturday may prove to be a return to those free-scoring days, but now I am not so sure.