Football stars rally to join global COVID-19 battle as pandemic takes its toll

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Qatar's Al Sadd's head coach Xavi Hernandez gives instructions during the second leg of the quarterfinal match against Saudi's Al-Nassr at the AFC Champions League in Doha, capital of Qatar, Sept. 16, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

As COVID-19 continues to ravage countries and upend lives around the world, a growing number of football players, coaches and teams have reached for their checkbooks to fight the global pandemic.

Xavi Hernandez is the latest star to pitch in as the Barcelona legend and his wife have pledged 1 million euros (1.08 million U.S. dollars) to the city's Hospital Clinic, which has appealed to the public to help buy medical equipment, respirators and personal protection equipment for staff. 

"Xavi Hernandez and Nuria Cunillera have made a donation of one million euros to the clinic to face up to COVID-19. Thanks a lot for your help and support... All together, we will get there," the hospital tweeted on Saturday. 

"Nuria and I, we support the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona's fight against the coronavirus. Thanks to the donations they are receiving, the hospital has acquired equipment for patients and healthcare professionals," Xavi said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

The former World Cup winner and two-time European champion with Spain is currently in charge of Al-Sadd in Qatar and turned down an approach from Barcelona in January after the club sacked Ernesto Valverde. 

The Men's 2019 Ballon d'Or winner Barcelona forward Lionel Messi poses with his six Ballon d'Or trophies he won in his career so far during the ceremony at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, France, Dec. 2, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

The Xavi donation follows that of his former teammate Lionel Messi, who last month also donated 1 million euros to the same hospital. Their ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola pledged another 1 million euros for the fight against coronavirus in his home of Catalonia. 

Guardiola's long-term rival Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho has been working with Age UK and community group Love Your Doorstep to deliver vital care packages to those in need. 

Other football heavyweights are also stepping up as the world faces one of its bleakest hours, with confirmed COVID-19 infections rising past 1.1 million and deaths exceeding 63,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.  

FC Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates during a Serie A football match between Spal and FC Juventus in Ferrara, Italy, Feb. 22, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Juventus talisman Cristiano Ronaldo and his agent Jorge Mendes came together to donate life-saving equipment to Portuguese hospitals in Lisbon and Porto.  

Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar also gave 5 million Brazilian real (940,000 U.S. dollars) to charity in his home nation of Brazil. His teammate Kylian Mbappe has made a generous donation to the Paris-based charity Abbe Pierre Foundation. 

In Germany, Bundesliga top scorer Robert Lewandowski and wife Anna have donated 1 million euros, after his Bayern Munich teammates Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich set up a fund donating 1 million euros between them. 

Meanwhile, FIFA has officially extended the age limit for the men's football tournament at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics. 

The amended Olympic rule retains the "players born on or after January 1, 1997" standard for the Tokyo Games following a one-year postponement agreed last week by the International Olympic Committee and Japanese authorities. 

It means players eligible for the intended under-23 tournament in 2020 can still play in Japan at age 24 next year. Men's football kicks off ahead of the July 23, 2021 opening ceremony in Tokyo. 

FIFA also postponed two women's age-group World Cups due this year in Central America and India, and confirmed no international games for men and women will be played in the early June dates protected for national team call-ups.

Football's world body said "health must always be the first priority and the main criteria in any decision-making process, especially in these challenging times."

The Olympic decision was made by a FIFA panel of football officials worldwide, created to address the soccer shutdown during the health crisis. 

The 16 men's teams at the Tokyo Olympics next year can also select three over-age players in their rosters. A stellar lineup includes Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain. 

Two women's World Cup tournaments – the Under-20s hosted by Panama and Costa Rica in August and September, and the Under-17s in India in November – are postponed. No new dates were announced. 

Until the COVID-19 outbreak, national team games scheduled in June included the 2020 European Championship, World Cup qualifying games in South America and Asia, and qualifiers for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. 

After Euro 2020 was postponed for one year, UEFA hoped to schedule playoff games in June to confirm the last four places in a 24-nation lineup. Those playoffs were postponed indefinitely this week. 

World Cup qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar now face uncertain scheduling in a congested calendar in Europe, South America and Asia. 

FIFA plans to direct hundreds of millions of dollars from its cash reserves to support a global emergency fund, and has agreed to appoint one official from each of the six football continents to coordinate the work. 

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