It’s the pitchside bottle-throwing habit which drives some Premier League club doctors mad.
A player will catch one, drink from it and throw it back over the white line from where it will be placed back in the rack for anyone else to use — a ready-made means to transmit the viruses to which elite players can be particularly prone.
One doctor speaks of pushing to get name labels put on bottles to prevent a virus spreading in such an elementary way but it was a struggle. Players in prime physical fitness, playing elite football week-in week-out, think they’re untouchable.
Footballers are sitting ducks for the coronavirus, one former Premier League medic warns
The Premier League were forced into action after Mikel Arteta (L) and Callum Hudson-Odoi (R) tested positive for the disease
The Covid-19 virus has revealed they are anything but. Within a 12-hour period late on Thursday, no fewer than five Premier League players were self-isolating, with Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi both confirmed as infected.
The sudden glut of cases in elite football stems, in part, from testing for the virus being more vigorous in the Premier League environment than among the general population.
A number of clubs are organising their own testing procedures. Yet the physical rigours of the elite football environment also have an effect on players’ immune systems which have always made players susceptible to viruses: immunosuppressed, in the medical parlance. Covid-19 is no different.
Players are known to share water bottles which can increase spread of viruses at clubs
Former Chelsea medic Dr Eva Carneiro says that footballers are immunosuppressed
Dr Carneiro said that the level of strain on the bodies of footballers makes them vulnerable
‘Professional players have been shown to be regularly immunosuppressed,’ former Chelsea doctor Dr Eva Carneiro tells Sportsmail. ‘This has been demonstrated by both blood tests and the rate and incidence of upper respiratory tract and other infections, which is how a virus like this starts. That’s due to the amount of sport they play. The physical activity, playing at a professional level, with games sometimes every 72 hours, as well as training creates a strain on the body.’
The risk is compounded by overseas travel. ‘It means they have to enter an airport even though they might be travelling by private jet,’ adds Dr Carneiro who was at Chelsea for six years and is now Sports and Exercise Medicine Doctor at The Sports Medical Group in London’s Harley Street. ‘Travel can also mean a change in sleep patterns, arriving back in the early hours of the morning, creating a fatigue which again can make players susceptible.’
The relentless churn of fixtures has exposed players to more potential carriers than many in the general population. Arteta’s diagnosis came less than 48 hours after the club announced a number of players and four staff members were self-isolating having met Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis before the Europa League tie in north London on February 27.
Pep Guardiola, like many in football, is very tactile which means diseases can be spread easily
The relentless churn of fixtures has exposed players to more potential carriers than normal
Marinakis, who also owns Nottingham Forest and attended last Friday’s match against Millwall, announced on Tuesday that he had tested positive for coronavirus. West Ham manager David Moyes was among those self-isolating on Friday, having come into direct contact with Arteta when their teams met on March 7.
But players also share dressing rooms, meeting rooms, coaches, stay at same hotels and — more significantly — dining rooms, regularly eating at the same time. ‘They also are part of families who are exposed to the greater community,’ says Dr Carneiro. ‘Fixtures also mean exposure to other teams, staff, nationalities, the latter having regular travel exposures of their own, with differing immunity profiles.’
Persuading members of the highly tactile playing community that they might change their hygiene habits has always been notoriously difficult. The immune system deficiencies also make players susceptible to gastrointestinal viruses, which can be extremely infectious.
But while medical staff will want that individual to go into total isolation to prevent disease spreading, some team-mates will want to visit. A process of negotiation is needed when, considering what is at stake if a virus races through a team, the need for self-isolation seems obvious.
Dr Carneiro says the travelling commitments of teams can also have a negative impact
Having to adapt to different time zones and conditions takes its toll on the players’ bodies
Furthermore, dressing rooms can be hubs for spreading viral diseases due to close proximity
‘Culturally, it can be hard to persuade players and staff to change the behaviours which cause the spread of infection, like hand-shaking and hugging,’ says Dr Carneiro. ‘Though you might want a player to go into isolation, this is poorly tolerated and there’s a natural desire from others not to want the individual to be isolated. That requires supervision and negotiation.’
Club doctors’ attempts to prevent a spread are always rigorous at times of the year when gastro bugs or seasonal flu are prevalent. Dr Carneiro would be urging players to apply hand sanitisers on the team coach, as part of the fight to fend off illness.
Medics feel that it is unclear whether, with the increasing strain on the healthcare nationally, Covid-19 tests will actually continue to be available to teams that want to purchase them, or whether they will be controlled for use on severe cases which require hospital admission.
‘This time it’s not just doctors trained in infection control who are fighting the spread,’ says Dr Carneiro. ‘That’s something we’ve not seen before in football. But we are not dealing with a known entity here.’