What is a signed football shirt worth? If you’re Lionel Messi, then around 15,000 Covid-19 vaccines . The Argentina international sent three autographed shirts to Chinese pharmaceutical giant Sinovac and in return secured 50,000 vaccines ahead of the Copa America. “Sinovac’s directors manifested their admiration for Lionel Messi, who kindly sent us three shirts for them,” Conmebol official Gonzalo Belloso tweeted about a deal that was brokered by Uruguayan president Luis Lacalle Pou. It quickly made headlines, not least because of the controversy around the plan to hold the tournament, which is set for Argentina and Colombia in June and July, as the region sees a surge in cases. Messi’s native Argentina is struggling and the government is reported to be considering a lockdown, while Uruguay has risen to be one of the worst affected by the pandemic per capita. IOC chief Thomas Bach says vaccines won’t be ‘silver bullet’ for staging Olympics The plan in Argentina is to vaccinate all players in the top flight, according to reports, but the vaccine is not yet approved in the country. While South American football will be getting a shot in the arm from Sinovac, the Japanese Olympic team will not be taking a Chinese vaccine – they opted out of the offer. China’s Olympic Committee made a deal with the International Olympic Committee in March to offer vaccines to everyone taking part in Tokyo and in Beijing’s Winter Games next year. That’s China’s vaccine diplomacy, of which Messi’s is the latest example. International sport being indebted to Chinese vaccines is a power move, especially as voices of discontent grow around China’s hosting of the Beijing Games in less than a year. It is not a level playing field when it comes to vaccines in sport as these deals show. Tokyo 2020: prioritise athletes for vaccine so Olympic Games can go ahead, say IOC’s Dick Pound Private purchases for healthy athletes made when countries are struggling with supplies to their general population is not a great look and the NHL was criticised when it offered to buy up vaccines for the league earlier this year. That is aside from the debate on whether Olympic athletes deserve to be prioritised for vaccines ahead of the Games, particularly when the IOC has only encouraged, rather than demanded, Olympians are vaccinated. The IOC has officially toed the line of following individual national guidelines, a move that handily defends them from criticism. Singapore, Hungary and Serbia all decided to inoculate their athletes early on – though Serbia’s most famous son Novak Djokovic will not be among them. Israel will have all of the delegation vaccinated by the end of May, while Belgium asked for its Olympians to be considered essential professions. Other nations – Great Britain, France and the US among them – decided against prioritising athletes earlier in the year while encouraging them to be vaccinated. Tokyo 2020: Yohan Blake would ‘rather miss Olympics’ than receive coronavirus vaccine Depending on their respective national roll-outs, athletes could yet be vaccinated in time for Tokyo. Australia, having fallen behind in its roll-out, is reported to be considering letting athletes jump the queue . That move would catch some flak, based on Australian attitudes to the whines of India’s touring cricket team and the tennis players at the Australian Open. Fast-tracking athletes is an easy target – should fit, healthy, often rich, young people jump the queue ahead of others who are none of those things? Then again, as roll-out rates have increased in some places such as the US, the argument is that athletes should be at the front of any queue as they are more likely to be spreaders of the virus, given the travel. The NFL has this week taken the stance that their players should be vaccinated once eligible, unless they have “medical or religious” grounds. Expect to say goodbye to the league’s anti-vaxxers or at least say hello to some newly religious figures. Tokyo 2020 Olympics: no Chinese vaccines to be taken by Team Japan, minister says It is an ethical dilemma for the individual athletes, no matter what decisions are taken above them by either their governments or governing bodies. In January, IOC veteran Dick Pound spoke out in favour of vaccinating Canada’s delegation, something which Olympic wrestling gold medallist Erica Weibe said she was dead against. “I want to represent Canada in Tokyo,” Wiebe wrote on Twitter in January after Pound’s statement. “I want to continue to inspire the next generation of young boys and girls. But I need my community to be safe first and that means a measured, risk-based vaccination plan.” Sport has been a welcome distraction during these Covid times and vaccines are the best way to ensure the safety of athletes. They are still catching Covid-19, with Sergio Ramos missing Real Madrid’s Uefa Champions League match with Liverpool this week. More will follow until more are vaccinated. IOC welcomes China’s coronavirus vaccine offer – not so Tokyo Critics of the Copa America have pointed out that football might not be a priority, which brings to mind Bill Shankly’s quote that “Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that”. It’s complicated but a problem easily solved if there were enough vaccines for anyone who wanted. Maybe Messi can have a root around for a few more signed shirts?