Keisuke Honda caught up in Brazil's return to football post-coronavirus debate

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Earlier this year Botafogo of Rio made a high profile signing -- veteran Japan international Keisuke Honda. It has not taken him long to discover that Brazil, as the old phrase goes, is not for beginners. On social media Honda posted the day's numbers of new infections and those who had lost their lives to the coronavirus.

"Am I crazy that I want to know a logical reason why we restart the league?" he asked.

The question could hardly be more pertinent. Brazil's coronavirus death toll is second only to the United States -- over 46,500 on Wednesday and rising at more than a thousand a day. Honda's adopted city of Rio de Janeiro has suffered more than anywhere else apart from Sao Paulo. Hopes that the situation is stabilising remain just that -- hopes. More worryingly, there are fears that the gradual process of reopening is taking place too soon. Some Brazilian cities who have gone down that path have already had to backtrack as the virus gains force. And this does not seem to be a second wave -- it is the first wave which has yet to be brought under control.

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It is striking, then, that football is about to return in Rio. The coronavirus has not gone away, but the second most hit city in South America will be the first to get the ball rolling.

The opening months of the year in Brazil are given over to the State Championships, one for each of the 27 states that make up this giant country. The Rio competition was supposed to come to a close on May 10, but, of course, was suspended in mid March, just after Honda had made a goalscoring debut for his new club. Now the action will resume. Astonishingly, at a meeting that lasted so late on Monday night that it had already drifted into Tuesday morning, it was decided that local giants Flamengo will face Bangu in the Maracana stadium on Thursday.

In Sao Paulo the clubs have been prevented from training until July 1. Paraguay, with a total of 11 deaths, will be the first national league to resume in South America on July 17. And almost a month earlier, Rio de Janeiro clubs will be back in competitive action -- while part of the Maracana complex is operating as a field hospital for coronavirus victims.

The leading explanation for the return is that the biggest club want it to happen. The Rio first division is made up of 12 clubs -- the traditional big four of Flamengo, Vasco da Gama, Botafogo and Fluminense, plus 12 others with a much smaller fan base. The little clubs have an urgent need for revenue -- although one of them, Macae, reported this week that they do not have a single professional player under contract. The Rio State Federation organize the championship and derive their revenue from it, and so are anxious for a resumption. But the big movers here are the current national and continental champions Flamengo, who, with the support of Vasco, have pushed tirelessly for the return of football.

Flamengo's motivation is not entirely clear. The Rio State Championship is hardly a priority for them -- their sights are set much higher. It brings them comparatively little revenue, especially with fans not being allowed into the stadium. Indeed, after not reaching agreement with the TV companies they have not sold the rights to their matches in this tournament, though there could be a last minute deal to screen the Bangu match.

It could be that Flamengo hope to speed the process leading to a belated start of the national championship, a much more lucrative competition, which was supposed to start in May and which currently does not have a kick off date. And there also is an affinity between the club directors and Brazil's controversial president Jair Bolsonaro, who has made no secret of his desire to get football up and running.

But there will surely be conflict ahead. Botafogo and Fluminense do not agree with the restart, and are currently not even in training. Rio's mayor Marcio Crivella has tried to broker a deal whereby the return of football is possible but not obligatory -- in other words, giving the two clubs the right not to play without receiving sanctions. It is unclear how the championship could continue on this basis. Vasco suggested a calendar where Botafogo and Fluminense do not play until July. But the Rio Federation have scheduled games for both teams on Monday.

Will they turn up? There may be some intense behind the scenes dealings but, as it stands, it seems unlikely. Fluminense president Mario Bittencourt said: "We have no other alternative than to use the sports justice system to enforce what is right," and on Wednesday night the players issued a statement making clear that they do not agree with the restart, and will only take the field under protest.

As for Botafogo, they have consistently taken a strong line on this subject. President Nelson Mufarrej simply said that "there are no conditions to comply with the calendar that has been proposed."

Through it all, Honda watches open mouthed. But if his cub president and directors are true to their word, he and his teammates will not, this month at least, be part of a restart of the league.