When the pandemic hit Europe in February, football associations and leagues in the continent at first did not pay much attention to the virus or its risks. In Italy where hospitals were soon to be overwhelmed, some matches continued to be played which eventually led to a huge leap in infections, specifically the Atlanta vs Valencia match in the 16th round of the Champions League and Juventus vs AC Milan in the Serie A.
In March, things went out of control in most European countries, especially Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany. These countries decided to halt sports events including football matches. Week after week the number of football players who contracted COVID-19 increased and were put in self-quarantine. Some have recovered and some are still weak. The good thing is that all of them are in good condition at the moment.
After two months of quarantine and lockdowns, European football clubs started to suffer financially and took some tough decisions in order to extricate themselves from the crisis. Some chairmen decided to waive the number of workers, while others decided to cut 20-70 per cent of the players’ wages while still others were able to stay afloat. Although some clubs ended the contracts of several workers, some high profile players challenged the decision and donated a part of their own salaries in order to keep workers at their jobs.
In the past few weeks, the COVID-19 curve has started to flatten in Germany which took a brave yet risky decision to resume the Bundesliga on 16 May behind closed doors. A few players have contracted the virus but officials said it would not affect the return of the Bundesliga. The German Football Association announced a list of some precautions the players, referees and managers should take:
- It is forbidden to take a group photo of players before the game.
-No shaking hands or hugs while celebrating goals.
- Celebrate goals by touching the elbow or the foot of your teammate only.
- Do not shake hands with players when making any substitutions.
- No spitting on the field.
- All people sitting on the bench are required to wear masks, taking into account the spacing between each person. The coach is allowed to uncover his nose and mouth when giving instructions, taking into account the spacing of distances.
In Spain, the situation is much different. The country is still suffering from huge numbers of infected patients everyday and it appears like it will take much more time to resume matches.
After more than 10 cases were discovered in La Liga and the Segunda Division, the return of football won’t be easy. In the Spanish League, players, coaches and staff must pass a coronavirus test in preparation for training and then completing competitions. Last Saturday, tests confirmed three new cases of the virus in Real Betis, Granada’s Angel Herrera, Real Sociedad’s Rimero and Atletico Madrid’s Lodi.
La Liga also announced on Sunday in an official statement that they discovered five new cases in the first and second class divisions.
Some sports journalists in Spain believe the discovery of new cases won’t affect the return of the clubs to training or the resumption of the season.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB), which controls the laws of the game, says teams will be able to substitute up to five players instead of three during matches when football resumes.
The temporary change in the rules has been introduced to protect the players’ fitness when competition returns.
In Italy, teams have started training and are awaiting the green light from the Italian Football Association and the government but most rumours have said that it’s more likely than not that the season will be cancelled.
In England, the situation is much more complicated. Some clubs are not in favour of the idea of playing on neutral fields or without fans while other teams, especially Liverpool who are on the verge of capturing their first league crown in more than three decades, are fighting to resume the Premier League as soon as possible, even if they have to play all their matches outside Anfield Road. There are suggestions that training may start in mid-June. The other possibility is that the league will be called off with no winners or relegated teams.
France and The Netherlands were the first countries to bring their football to an early end once the virus started spreading. Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax Amsterdam were atop their respective leagues when the action stopped.
The African football club competitions, the Champions League and the Confederation Cup, are also on hold. Two Egyptian clubs, Ahly and Zamalek, are in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Pyramids of Egypt are also in the Confed semi-finals.
Regardless of the importance of football’s return, governments should be cautious about when to resume so as not to regret it later on. Football, and sports in general, should not be the priority at the moment.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly