The reckless Nations League, why it’s time to bring our Bhoys home

The International break has to date seen Celtic lose the service of three first team players to Covid-19 issues – two positive tests for Odsonne Edouard and last night’s news that Nir Bitton had also tested positive – while in the case of Ryan Christie imposed self-isolation has been the issue. You get the feeling they won’t be the last.

Scotland are back in action for Version II this time of Nations League qualification tonight, after a penalty shoot-out win on Thursday night saw them reach the play off final in Version I.

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As a Scotland fan myself, one who saw the national team win in Paris and lose 6-0 in Amsterdam and too many heartbreaks to count in between, I’d like nothing more than see Scotland qualify for a major tournament for the first time since France ’98 and I don’t care much how we do it or how we play just as long as we get there.

However, I’m having serious concerns over the worth of international football in a pandemic and I’d be more than willing to sacrifice that first tournament in 23 years and draw a line under this whole sorry mess. It is simply far too dangerous at present to be in any way justifiable.

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Scotland boss Steve Clarke has already been asked to comment on the credibility of International football given the number of positive tests and subsequent self-isolation imposed on those in contact. It’s a fair line of questioning, although the credibility of the games and tournaments themselves is surely a secondary issue when you consider safety is a far bigger issue.

As reported on the BBC, Clarke said:

“I don’t think it’s so much about the credibility. You could level that at club football if they start to lose two or three players every week for whatever reason as well. You either go with the games or you don’t. And if you go with the games you can’t start to question credibility.

“It would be very unfair to say the problem with Covid is international football. It’s not. Every industry is affected by it. It’s a global pandemic.”

And Clarke is right the credibility is a smokescreen, although it was damaged by last month’s Czech debacle and by the impact we’ve seen across too many nations this time around, yet the merry-go-round continues.

I wrote about the lunacy of that just a month ago when Scotland ended up playing a scratch Czech squad in Nations league qualifying. It is hard to believe, but when you consider the impact on nearly every team involved and the fact we are barely halfway through these games, this time around it’s worse and there will be more to come. Is there a word more extreme than lunacy to use to describe UEFA continuing with this tournament? If there is, we are slap bang in those realms now.

I do get the World wants to get back to ‘normal’ and I’m sure the pressure on UEFA to supply events for TV and sponsors is huge. I’m also aware with the Euros looming large that all the available routes to supply the qualifying teams probably need to be navigated and concluded but the threat to all players and in particular the threat to the Celtic players involved and the subsequent impact on our Ten-in-a-Row campaign is clear. Celtic face a Glasgow Derby on Saturday and despite keeping our players clear from all of this we are inviting trouble to return to Celtic and it’s impacting on our domestic ambitions.

Football clubs throughout Europe are working in varying versions of bubbles and if the domestic leagues are to continue then the avoidance of unnecessary exposure to those outside those bubbles is surely essential, if we’re hoping to conclude domestic programmes.

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Celtic now look like an organisation very much on the ball. Bar the rogue Bolingoli, we’ve all heard it would be easier to steal ‘The Rainy Cadillac’ from Dali’s Figueres museum than access the inner sanctum of Celtic Park these days. If that’s true Celtic should be commended for what they’ve achieved. So why is the governing body in Europe risking it all? It all seems as surreal as any of the famed Catalan’s art work?

At least with European football the Celtic players travel in their own bubble, they have strict guidance to follow and it’s the same group of players and staff adhering to all the guidelines as they travel from place to place confined to flights, transfers and hotels.

Initially most ties were also moved to one off matches rather than the traditional two-legged format, to limit travel We’re now about to join a tournament with one game a week, that is manageable, the international version is not.

With International football the Scotland squad alone sees the coming together of 18 of those bubbles as the players all join from their respective club teams, that’s not including all the coaching staff and support networks.

We then entertain a country like Israel into the mix who probably have a similar number merging to form their own squad and have travelled to Scotland from halfway round the globe. Then assuming they’ve been lucky enough to navigate it safely they return everyone on a flight with its own risks attached. From there we then invite the next nation to our shores, then another. For other teams there are multiple countries to visit and the crossover is as incredible as it is risky.

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Celtic have already released statements – as we tend to do when the incredulity levels rise amongst the support. Yet within the concern lies words that indicate we will still toddle along and play by the rules, somewhat concerned at the fallout and punishment no doubt.

Yet if Celtic are concerned – and I believe they probably are – they may have to put their heads above the parapet on this one. We’ve shown we are more than capable of looking after our own, yet away from our checks and balances we are seeing players exposed and unnecessarily so. We may well face consequences but can any of those be any more concerning than having more of our players testing positive. If Celtic took a stand, I’m sure others would follow, we are unlikely to be out on a limb and alone.

The time has come for Celtic to refuse to release our players to international duty. We’ll take some flack but we’ll be looking after our own and forcing the issue onto the agenda. Without such a stand, statements such as Celtic released when the news broke about Nir Bitton’s positive test will be seen as nothing more than empty placating words. If we went beyond a statement, I’m sure there would be a great degree of support amongst the Celtic family on this one.

Niall J

About Author

As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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