Scottish football has been shown a yellow card and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned that she will have no alternative but to upgrade that to red if players continue to flout the agreed Covid-19 protocols.
Following the latest transgression, by Celtic player Boli Bolingoli, games involving the Parkhead side and Aberdeen scheduled for this week have been postponed and all friendly matches have been banned but the government stopped short of sending the whole sport back into lockdown, despite obvious anger at a further breach of the rules.
It has been made clear, however, that the same kind of restraint will not be shown in future if lessons are not learned.
Premiership managers and captains were addressed by National Clinical Director Jason Leitch on Monday and reminded of their ongoing responsibilities after eight Aberdeen players broke the social-distancing regulations by visiting a city centre bar together, resulting in the postponement of last weekend’s St Johnstone versus Aberdeen fixture.
However, later that night it emerged that Bolingoli had also blatantly disregarded the UK-wide travel rules by taking an unsanctioned trip to Spain. The defender failed to quarantine on his return. He then trained with his team-mates and played in Sunday’s draw with Kilmarnock.
Although all players and coaching staff at Celtic have been tested twice since the Belgian’s return to Scotland, with no positive results, his actions fuelled fears that the season could be mothballed after just two rounds of fixtures.
Hastily convened talks between Leitch, the Scottish Minister for Sport Joe Fitzpatrick and members of the SPFL and SFA Coronavirus Joint Response Group (JRG) proved successful in staving off that outcome but extra concessions have been agreed.
As well as the halt to all friendly matches and the postponement of tonight’s St Mirren v Celtic and Aberdeen v Hamilton games and Saturday’s Celtic v Aberdeen match, the SPFL have had to agree to put in place punitive measures so that they can take direct action against players if there are any more breaches.
They have also agreed to establish a player education programme to ensure no further rule breaking and to underline player and staff responsibilities.
The SPFL will also undertake promotional work on behalf of the Scottish Government, primarily publicising the FACTS health awareness campaign on how to stay safe during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But, it remains a set-back in the battle to get fans back into stadia sooner rather than later, and SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster condemned the transgressors.
“We have only been able to restart matches thanks to the enormous efforts and sacrifices of literally thousands of people across the Scottish game. For anyone to put that in jeopardy in such a thoughtless and selfish manner is just beyond belief,” said Doncaster.
“The vast majority of players and officials who have strictly observed the necessary restrictions will rightly see this as a real kick in the teeth.”
Speaking at her daily briefing, Sturgeon made it clear that she had considered that ‘vast majority’ when mulling over another football lockdown and, aware of the consequences for the game, for fans and for those employed or dependent on the football industry, she said she did not want those who have abided by the rules to be punished for others’ errors.
She did warn that may be avoidable in future, though. “Consider today the yellow card,” she said. “The next time it will be the red card because you will leave us with absolutely no choice.
“This is just not acceptable. Every day I stand here and ask members of the public to make huge sacrifices on how they live their lives. The vast majority are doing that and it’s not easy.
“We can’t have privileged football players just deciding they are not going to bother. This can’t go on.”
That message was reiterated by SFA president and chairman of the JRG Rod Petrie, who said: “While the decision to postpone these games is deeply regrettable, nevertheless, in the circumstances it is unavoidable and uncontestable.
“The JRG members were astounded to learn of the recklessness demonstrated by Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo in his breach of government public health guidance and football protocols.
“We echo the sentiments of Celtic FC in their condemnatory statement and commend the club’s swiftness in opening a disciplinary investigation.
“Players must heed the warning of the First Minister that this is a yellow-card moment for Scottish football.”