Sports

The Coronavirus Patient Had a Question: Don’t You Lead a Soccer Team?

He swapped his blazer and tie for the uncomfortable fit of personal protective equipment and left the boardroom for the emergency room at Lisbon’s military hospital.

There, as a doctor pressed into service in the coronavirus pandemic, he faced feverish, coughing patients and helped line up their care. Some of them, though, had a curious question.

“From just looking at my eyes they would say, ‘Hey, are you not the Sporting president? Can I have a selfie?’”

Frederico Varandas is indeed the president of Sporting Clube de Portugal, one of the country’s biggest soccer teams. He is also Dr. Frederico Varandas, a reserve military physician who completed a tour in Afghanistan a decade ago before switching his career.

Varandas, 40, was recently on call at the hospital for about six weeks, working 12-hour shifts treating military staff members and their families. His primary task was to test and evaluate the patients as they arrived, before handing off the more serious ones to his colleagues in the intensive care unit.

ImagePatients recognized Varandas, left, despite the personal protective equipment he wore.
Patients recognized Varandas, left, despite the personal protective equipment he wore.

Though not the kind of military duty he was used to — he came under enemy fire with a battalion of coalition solders in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a decade earlier — serving in the battle against the coronavirus brought a different set of challenges.

There was the risk of contracting a novel, potentially fatal disease that was not fully understood. And the work, he recalled, was more time consuming than would be typical, because medics were required to disinfect their equipment — typically goggles, gloves and a mask — between each consultation.

Still, there were lighter moments, like being recognized even through his personal protective equipment.

In Portugal, the presidents of the Primeira Liga’s three big soccer teams — Benfica, Porto and Sporting — have national recognition on par with the head of state or the prime minister. Varandas said he could not recall the number of times he was asked to pose for photographs by the time he completed his last shift at the end of April.

He is not the only sports figure pressed into medical service in the global fight against the virus. In Canada, for instance, Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in hockey turned medical student, has been gathering protective equipment for workers and also helping with efforts to track the spread of the virus.

Though unexpected, he found his medical service fulfilling.

“Sports had stopped in Portugal and I thought that I am more important to the country working as a doctor,” said Varandas, who this week agreed to talk about his experience.

After serving in the military, attending the rank of lieutenant, he spent two years at a small-time club based near Lisbon, before being handed the opportunity for what he described as his dream job: becoming Sporting’s head doctor. Varandas held the position for seven years before, in 2018, he entered the race to become the club’s president just as Sporting slipped into one of the darkest periods in the team’s history.

The team’s finances were in disarray, and the former president was forced out amid a mutiny from the club’s membership. Worst of all, nine first-team players walked out on their contracts after being set upon by a group of the team’s disgruntled fans.

Varandas was elected after a bitter campaign that was widely followed by the news media in Portugal and included nightly televised debates reminiscent of national elections. “Football in Portugal is crazy, it’s like a religion, it’s sick,” Varandas said.

Varandas has had mixed results. By the time the coronavirus pandemic struck Portugal, the finances of the club had largely been stabilized, but results on the field were poor, with the team almost 20 points behind the league leader, Porto, at the time the league was suspended in March. A battle with the club’s organized fan groups has become so severe that Varandas said the state now provides him with a security detail.

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Varandas served as a military doctor with coalition forces in Afghanistan a decade ago.

The soccer stoppage in Portugal, which mirrors the pause in much of the sports world, has only brought newer and more immediate problems.

After finishing his shifts at the hospital, Varandas dialed in for lengthy late night calls with board members to map out a plan to steer the club through the unexpected drama of having its season frozen in time.

“I continued controlling things because football stopped, but the club continued,” Varandas said. “It was not easy at all that first month and a half trying to cope with the hospital work and football.”

Board members, including Varandas, agreed to 50 percent pay cuts, while he called players individually to convince them to reduce their salaries by 40 percent for three months.

Plans have been made for soccer to return on June 4, but games will be played without fans and under strict hygiene protocols, similar to those adopted in Germany’s Bundesliga, the first major European soccer league to return.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

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      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

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      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

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      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

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As part of the protocol, Varandas is among the sporting officials who are required to undergo regular tests for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, because he is in contact with the playing squad. To him, the process is based on creating the correct image around soccer’s return as much as being rooted in science. Varandas recalled that he was not tested once while he worked at the hospital where he was regularly in contact with coronavirus patients.

“Footballers are tested more than doctors working in hospitals,” he said. “For me that’s really stupid, it’s political. I understand it politically, but scientifically this is ridiculous.”

Varandas, who specializes in sports medicine, not epidemiology, remarked that in Portugal, restaurants and kindergartens have reopened without similar requirements for mass testing.

He sees a far bigger challenge on the horizon.

Even with games on course to return, Portuguese teams face huge financial challenges for the foreseeable future. The country has for the past two decades punched above its weight in being a producer of world class talent, extracting millions of dollars in revenue from some the world’s richest teams thanks to a premium on their “Made in Portugal” brand.

The ability to do that is now in doubt, with figures like the chief executives of the Bundesliga and the executive vice chairman of Manchester United saying the $7 billion a year global transfer market is headed for a major correction.

Only this January, Sporting made the biggest trade in its history, selling midfielder Bruno Fernandes to United for a fee that could rise to 65 million euros. “Now sometimes I go to bed and imagine what would happen if we tried to sell Bruno Fernandes now — what would the price be? 15, 10?,” he said.

“I don’t know what the value of a footballer is now. Sporting, Porto, Benfica, all the clubs in Portugal we have to sell players.”

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Varandas, with Sporting’s new coach, Ruben Amorim, has sought to right the club’s finances.Credit…Andre Kosters/EPA, via Shutterstock

Varandas said the fallout from the coronavirus has exposed the fragility of the world, and structures like Portugal’s export driven talent model.

“This is an experience you can’t forget,” he said. “It’s incredible to see everything just stop, something that you could have never imagined happening before that something that seems so benign and can do this incredible damage.”