Premier League players have been condemned as “damn stupid and selfish” for staging illicit Christmas gatherings as the country’s – and football’s – coronavirus crisis deepened.
Tottenham Hotspur trio Erik Lamela, Giovani Lo Celso and Sergio Reguilón and West Ham United’s Manuel Lanzini all face disciplinary action and a possible police fine after being caught breaking Government and Premier League rules by meeting together over the festive period.
Manchester City defender Benjamin Mendy also risked punishment after admitting hosting a New Year’s Eve dinner party, as did Crystal Palace captain Luka Milivojevic and Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic for a similar breach that casts further doubt on English football’s ability to contain the new variant of Covid-19.
That new variant continues to wreak havoc with the game, as:
Fulham’s match at Burnley became the third Premier League fixture postponed in less than a week
The English Football League bowed to pressure to introduce twice-weekly testing for the virus at all its clubs
There were fresh calls for the season to be suspended and extended
The credibility of football’s strict coronavirus containment protocols were undermined following the emergence of a photograph of Lamela, Lo Celso, Reguilón and Lanzini attending a Christmas party with 14 family and friends, news of Mendy’s New Year’s Eve gathering, and footage of Milivojevic and Mitrovic together that same night.
Watch: Tottenham trio’s Covid-19 breach was ‘a negative surprise’, says Jose Mourinho
David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary and MP for Tottenham, posted on Twitter: “Lo Celso, Lamela, Reguilon and Lanzini breaking lockdown rules over Christmas! So damn stupid and selfish. It just beggars belief.”
Those sentiments were echoed by one senior figure in English football, who told The Sunday Telegraph: “Their capacity to be stupid knows no bounds.”
Spurs said they “strongly condemn” their players’ conduct “particularly as we know the sacrifices everybody around the country made to stay safe over the festive period”.
They and a “disappointed” West Ham said they either had or would take action against those involved, while City confirmed they were looking into Mendy’s breach.
Lamela, Lo Celso and Lanzini all took to Twitter to issue grovelling apologies, the former saying he felt “ashamed”, while a spokesperson for Mendy said the player was “sorry” for allowing “a chef and two friends of his partner to attend his property for a dinner party on New Year’s Eve”.
I want to apologise for a bad mistake I made over Christmas and I take full responsibility for my actions. I know people have made difficult sacrifices to stay safe and I should be setting a better example. 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼
— Manuel Lanzini (@manulanzini) January 2, 2021
Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho, who himself fell foul of coronavirus rules during the first national lockdown, said he was “disappointed” with his players, especially having gifted a suckling pig to summer signing Reguilón upon hearing the defender was to spend Christmas in London alone.
Reguilón was the only one of the trio in the squad for Spurs’ 3-0 win over Leeds United, a game Lamela had been expected to start.
The club said it did not comment on private medical matters when asked whether Lamela had tested positive for Covid-19.
However, The Telegraph has been told Lanzini returned a negative test following his attendance at the Christmas party.
The Metropolitan Police also told The Telegraph it would “make contact with both clubs” about a gathering that contravened the ban on Londoners celebrating Christmas with those outside their own households and support bubbles.
Anyone found in breach can be fined £200 for a first offence, doubling for further offences up to a maximum of £6,400 – although fines of £10,000 can be issued for gatherings of more than 30 people.
Milivojevic captained Palace in their 2-0 win over Sheffield United on Saturday, after which manager Roy Hodgson said of his breach: “We condemn it and we certainly apologise for it. I am certain Luka will as well but as far I am concerned he must take responsibility for that. It is an internal matter that we will deal with but there is literally nothing positive I can say on the matter.”
Fulham confirmed they would also deal with Mitrovic “internally” having also seen a second successive game postponed following what the Premier League said was “a further increase in positive Covid-19 cases” at the club.
The surge in such cases across football has already prompted the Premier League to reintroduce twice-weekly testing and The Telegraph can reveal the EFL plans to follow suit this month.
Many lower-league players have not been tested since November amid medical advice that protocols around training and match-days were sufficient when balanced against the prohibitive cost of such checks.
News of more intensive testing comes after AFC Wimbledon manager Glyn Hodges condemned the decision to force his side to play their League One game against Lincoln City, becoming the latest figure to call for “football to go into hibernation”.
Hodges accused the EFL and the game’s other governing bodies of “winging it” in their response to the new coronavirus variant after the Dons sought permission to postpone Saturday’s match following a number of positive tests at both clubs but said they had been “instructed to proceed”.
Writing in his programme notes for the game, which opposite number Michael Appleton missed after contracting Covid-19, Hodges said: “It’s time now for football to go into hibernation for a few weeks and if it means extending the season then so be it.”
He added: “The EFL are giving little guidance. Football overall seems to be winging it. Spurs and Fulham had their game called off because a few in each camp had COVID, yet we are being told to play. Premier League clubs can carry one or two absences, but in the lower leagues that is impossible.
“The whole country is suffering, thousands have died, yet football at our level is being asked to carry on regardless. If it wasn’t so serious, you could end up laughing.”
Watch: Man City without five for Chelsea trip after positive Covid-19 tests