Just before midnight, the players gathered on the tarmac, waiting for the plane like it was the last flight out of Morocco. At their destination, Canberra airport in the nation’s capital, fog swirled above the ground. Visibility was low.
At Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport, the players from Victoria’s three A-League teams – Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City and Western United – stood, idling. The plane did too. In Canberra, the weather worsened. The message came through – no.
Sitting on the team bus, the windows dark behind him, the A-League’s leading all-time goal scorer, Besart Berisha, said, again and again, that it was unbelievable.
“Never in my life, in my career, do I see this before,” he said. Teammate Alessandro Diamanti was filming him on his phone. That was Monday.
The NSW government’s decision to close its border with Victoria due to Melbourne’s coronavirus outbreak, announced on Monday and effective from midnight Tuesday, has thrown the A-League season’s restart into chaos.
As cases skyrocket in Victoria, the three competing teams have banded together to escape the state and set up in NSW or the ACT, so they can play out the rest of the season.
On Tuesday, the players were back, trying to leave before the clock hit midnight. They were told they would be turning around again. Australian Capital Territory authorities informed them that said players would have to spend two weeks in quarantine if they arrived – ruining plans to play next week’s fixture on 16 July.
After two consecutive nights of failure, the plan is for the clubs to apply for a special exemption to enter NSW.
In a video on Instagram, Western United’s Diamanti described the long-running farce.
“We were told to catch the bus and drive for 10 hours to cross the border,” he said in Italian. “Then we were told to go to the airport and go to Canberra, then a bus to Sydney. We were all on the plane ready to go and we can’t leave.
“We went back home and will see what to do, how to finish this season, because we have to go to Sydney. Fifteen minutes ago they closed the border so we can’t go … We are are now going to go home and in 15 minutes they will tell us how to get there. Maybe on a bicycle.”
On Tuesday night, an optimistic Instagram story from the Italian midfielder showed him outside the team bus, nodding with the caption “Round 2”. A few hours later, the images were only of his unopened bags, back in his apartment, captioned liberally with a crying-laughing emoji.
Online, fans poked fun with dozens of memes – lovingly placing the border farce into the long line of “Peak A-League” stuff-ups.
On Wednesday morning, Football Federation Australia confirmed the stranded Victorians would push for an exemption.
“After the NSW government’s decision to close its border with Victoria, active discussions occurred throughout the day to seek to obtain an exemption under the NSW Public Health (Covid-19 Interstate Hotspots) Orders for the teams to enter NSW,” the governing body said.
“In addition to seeking an exemption to enter NSW directly, an alternative plan was developed to move the players to Canberra this evening, however, within the tight timeframes available ACT government quarantine regulations could not be met.”
The players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), said it was “embarrassing”.
“The lack of clarity, the ad-hoc planning and shifting commitments have left the players embarrassed, frustrated and entirely lacking confidence in the process,” the union said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro, had said he was open to the exemption.
“You’ve heard me talk about the importance of sport,” he said. “If we’ve got an opportunity to do so, let’s bring them across the border … put them in the regions or here in the city and make sure they’re part of the A-League that kicks off shortly.”