‘Have a backbone.’ ‘Pay the fine for withholding players.’ ‘The club must put a spot to this.’
These types of comments could be found dotted about the replies when Celtic released their fourth club statement in the matter of days confirming that a player would be out of action. Odsonne Edouard, Nir Bitton and Hatem Elhamed all tested positive, while Ryan Christie was forced into self-isolation.
As the club were quick to stress in each statement, they are under obligation to release players for international duty and will face sanctions from the Fifa Disciplinary Committee if they don’t. The exact penalties for this are unclear, a significant fine would be likely, but one certainty is that players held back from international duty will be unavailable for their club for five days after the end of the international break.
This then poses the following question: would the Celtic supporters currently demanding action be happy for their club to take this punishment in future? Unless there is a postponement, it would be highly unlikely that Celtic’s next game following an international break would take place outside the five-day sanction. So they’d basically have to play one game with a near reserve team. Take Saturday for instance, Celtic are missing four key players as a result of Covid-19, but they’d be missing a good few more – including Vasilis Barkas, Kristoffer Ajer, Shane Duffy, Callum McGregor and Mohamed Elyounoussi – if they had decided to take such extreme preventable measures before a plane took off. The support would definitely have not been happy with that.
But does the latest swell in cases change things? For a Glasgow derby, the club would always roll the dice and hope everyone returns from international duty with a clean bill of health. But is there any chance they’d change their mind for other matches? Ten or 14 days could incorporate two, three, four games, while five days is unlikely to include more than one.
As much fun as it’d be to see Celtic go ‘nah, we’ll let half our team handle this one’ while sticking two fingers up to the authorities, the only way they would take this course of action is if the rising number of cases becomes incredibly severe and the club are absolutely certain letting players go would result in positive tests. At which point it’s much more about the health of their players than it is about anything else. They could also hand pick a couple of players to remain in Glasgow, if they feel the destination they are travelling to carries a greater risk.
For the meantime, Peter Lawwell and company will treat this for what it is. Celtic have been dreadfully unlucky. Human beings are rarely satisfied with chance or coincidence playing a role in our lives. We demand meaning or we demand action. But often it's just down to dumb luck. Celtic have been hammered by it on this occasion, but just as Scotland benefited in one instance from Covid’s unpredictable touch and it nearly came back to bite them in another, the reversal could soon occur for the reigning champions.