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Cancel the February International Friendlies

With the pandemic continuing to rage and vaccines ready to make a real difference soon, there’s just no need to play these games right now.

When he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 about US involvement in Vietnam, John Kerry asked a powerful question: “How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” As he put it, the Nixon administration was offering “thousands of rationalizations” which couldn’t overcome the simple reality that US involvement was resulting in unnecessary and pointless deaths.

I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot lately as I see decision-makers stay the course in the face of strong evidence that it is exposing people to risk. And I wonder whether we would see the same choices if those decision-makers had to look an actual human being in the face and say ‘your death is an acceptable price to pay for our choices.’

I can’t say for sure that the travel associated with February international soccer friendlies will kill anyone. But we know that travel—especially international travel—generates new viral vectors. Hosting large events brings many people together. Some of them will have COVID and will pass it to others. So while I can’t say for certain what the consequences will be, I can guess with a high degree of confidence that some people will get sick. And to what gain?

COVID makes for some legitimately hard choices, but international friendlies are not worth the cost

COVID has provoked some genuinely difficult choices. Should schools reopen? Answering that questions requires weighing the tremendous social cost of a lost educational year, the lost productivity and mental strain of parents forced into caregiving, along with (of course) the increased dangers associated with bringing more people together.

And these calculations aren’t entirely absent from any form of risk assessment. After all, no one seriously thinks that society should always prioritize risk mitigation in every case. Cars kill thousands every month, and yet we still drive. Alcohol kills and yet we drink. Junk food kills and yet we eat. Moreover, there are real social consequences to prolonged isolation. And in a world where social support is limited, many people have found themselves trying to make the best out of a series of bad choices.

But are international friendlies worth paying the costs? I can’t see how.

The argument for continuing with sports at all is a little touch-and-go. But on the whole, sports leagues have been very successful at limiting COVID exposure. Bubbles have been most effective, but strong regulations have allowed for relatively normal campaigns to proceed in leagues around the world. And sports do bring real joy to people, in addition to providing employment and economic activity. That's not nothing.

But even if those domestic campaigns can be justified, what is the argument for international friendlies? These significantly increase the risk, drawing players from all over together into a single space. And they do so in the service of games that the world, quite frankly, would barely miss if they didn’t exist. Would national team coaches prefer to have time with their squads? Of course. Will fans watch the games that get played? Sure. But would the world of football really be measurably worse if all these teams simply stayed home for another couple months? I don’t think so.

Plenty of countries have already backed away from these friendlies. The holdouts should join the list

We’ve already seen Japan withdraw from the SheBelieves Cup, only to be immediately replaced by Argentina. Denmark was scheduled to play England, but the tournament was called off and Denmark has canceled their camp. This morning Norway withdrew from the Tournoi de France, leaving France looking for a last-minute replacement. Paris Saint-Germain has refused to release Alana Cook based on a rule that permits blocking call-ups where it would require an extended quarantine. Lyon withheld Nikita Parris from the England camp for the same reason, although they've allowed other players like Catarina Macario to travel.

Basically, it's a mess. And it leads one to wonder what value is served by holding these games at all. Admittedly, some will be played by neighbors. England is playing Northern Ireland. Belgium plays Germany and the Netherlands. France plays Switzerland. But the SheBelieves tournament will continue—including the US Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. This comes just weeks after they played two matches against Colombia—games that weren’t even played in a FIFA window. And I just can't see the justification. These aren't qualifiers that have to be played to fit a calendar. They're just friendlies.

And even if they were qualifiers, they could still be pushed back. South Korea and China still have to play for a final Asian Olympic slot, while Cameroon and Chile are facing off for an Olympic berth as well. All those games have been pushed back to April.

I don't want to imply this is a open-and-shut case. I know plenty of fans are excited about these games. I understand it. I want to see these teams, too. Especially Argentina who supplied two of my favorite matches from the 2019 World Cup. I'm sure the players want to get out there. But I just can’t get over the sense of uneasiness. Can I really watch these games while knowing that someone out there may end up dying for the mistake?

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