Portugal investigating omicron outbreak among players in soccer club

Health authorities said Monday that Belenenses SAD, a professional Portuguese soccer club, has seen more than a dozen confirmed cases of the omicron coronavirus variant.

Officials are investigating if the team could mark one of the first locally transmitted infections of the variant outside of South Africa, where it was first detected, The Associated Press reported. 

One Belenenses SAD player who tested positive had recently traveled to South Africa. The others who were infected, including players and club staffers, had not, according to the AP.

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The Lisbon-based team has since identified 13 cases of the variant, and all those who have been in contact with those who tested positive are quarantining. Players from Benfica, a soccer team that competed against Belenenses SAD in a match on Saturday, are also reportedly being tested for the virus. 

"Since this is a new variant, we have to tighten the controls," Portugal’s health general director, Graça Freita, said in a local radio interview, per the AP. 

But health officials, the soccer clubs and Portugal’s Primeira Liga all faced criticism about why Saturday's game ever took place. Prior to the match, Belenenses SAD had reduced its team to just nine players because of the outbreak, and after halftime, the game's referee suspended the match because the team had just seven players on the field and had lost another, the AP reported.

Freitas reportedly said the clubs chose to go on with the match on their own as health authorities do not make decisions about professional soccer games. 

Portugal has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with nearly 87 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Authorities there have reimposed certain restrictions such as face masks and proof of vaccination requirements as a result of a recent uptick in infections.