Football clubs continuing to struggle with vaccine uptake among players

Callum Robinson’s comments on Tuesday are an indication of wider issue in the sport

Callum Robinson's comments on Tuesday that he is yet to receive a Covid-19 vaccine despite being infected with the virus twice have caused a stir around Stephen Kenny's squad ahead of Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan, but the issue is one that international teams and clubs everywhere are grappling with.

It's understood that around 10 of the 26-man Ireland squad are unvaccinated but that figure would still put the rate above the reported average around the Premier League. While all of the Ireland players and coaching staff were tested when they gathered in Dublin and again on Tuesday, only Robinson and the other unvaccinated members of the squad must be tested three more times in camp.

In a statement on Wednesday, the FAI said “we have encouraged all our players at all levels of the game to be vaccinated but we respect and must accept the right of all individuals to make a personal choice on Covid-19 vaccination”.

Across Europe clubs are keeping vaccinations rates close to their chests while no major leagues, Uefa or Fifa have imposed vaccine mandates on players. In the Premier League reports suggest that just seven of the 20 clubs have so far vaccinated more than 50 per cent of their squad, although some do buck the trend.

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Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp recently spoke out strongly in favour of players getting vaccinated and said that 99 per cent of his players have taken the vaccine while the BBC report that Wolves have vaccinated 100 per cent of their first-team players and staff.

In the English Football League vaccine hesitancy is just as much of an issue with some clubs really struggling to increase uptake. Rochdale doctor Wesley Tensel told BBC Five Live Breakfast on Tuesday that the number of players vaccinated at the League One club was "very poor".

“I think one of the reasons is social media, the anti-vax stuff that’s bandied around, and it does get passed around the changing room,” he said. “Football changing rooms are different to most workplaces. They’re all together, it’s an echo chamber, so if one of the senior players or an influential person has seen something on social media and that’s passed to somebody else, they’re not necessarily likely to critically appraise where that’s come from and they can end up going down a rabbit hole.”

Across the board it appears that there is a divide between managers encouraging players to get vaccinated and some players being reluctant to do so. After the unvaccinated Granit Xhaka tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this week, Roma manager José Mourinho told the midfielder to "get the jab Granit and be safe," in a comment on an Instagram post.

Domestically, some League of Ireland clubs have achieved 100 per cent vaccination rates among players.

Leagues and governing bodies appear reluctant to introduce any sort of vaccine mandate despite reports earlier in the year that they would. For instance, it was reported during the summer that the Premier League would require all players to be vaccinated but that has not materialised while, in April, reports suggested that all players would need to be inoculated to play in the Copa America – a directive that never came to pass in the end.

Recent reports also suggested that Qatar would look for all players to be vaccinated ahead of the 2022 World Cup but Fifa are now looking at alternative forms of certification such as proof of recovery or evidence of negative tests for fans, officials and players.

In the Premier League updated regulations were recently announced for players returning from red-list countries during the international break. The new rules mean that vaccinated players will still have to quarantine at home but will be allowed to train and play matches.

Whether vaccination rates in other European leagues are higher than the Premier League is hard to tell but Norwich's German manager Daniel Farke recently commented that Bundesliga players would be more open to receiving the vaccine than their English counterparts, saying that "they [the PFA] are extremely careful not to put any pressure on the professionals. As soon as someone even raises the moral index finger, they are already referring to the personal decision of each individual. We'll see how the whole issue develops."

In one of the few examples of clubs incentivising players to be vaccinated, on Wednesday German newspaper Bild reported that 90 per cent of Hertha Berlin players and staff are now fully vaccinated and that the unvaccinated cohort will now have to pay for their own Covid tests, working out at about €1,600 a month.

In Spain, Barcelona said last month that 99.9 per cent of their playing staff from underage up to senior level are now fully vaccinated.

In the US, NBA players face a loss of wages and missed matches in states where vaccine certs are required to attend indoor events. Whether football leagues and governing bodies opt to introduce a similar mandate at any time remains to be seen but, for now, it appears they’re prepared to avoid the legal and ethical issues that might arise.