Is it too soon for football to return?

Painful as it is to admit, football had a major part in spreading the novel coronavirus across Italy and Spain - and from there, possibly to some other parts of Europe.

The ominous football match that went down in history as “Game Zero” took place on February 19th in Milan, Italy. Atlanta hosted Valencia in the 76,000-seat San Siro stadium instead of its own 21,000-seat Atleti Azzurri d'Italia in Bergamo. It was a great moment for the Italian team. As you might expect, the stadium was packed - and so were its surroundings. According to some estimates, about a third of Bergamo’s entire population was there, along with nearly 2,500 of Valencia’s fans. It was a resounding win for the Italian side. They were second to Manchester City alone in their group in the Champions League. Tens of thousands of fans were shouting, screaming, chanting, and singing in the stands. Two weeks after the match, an explosion of cases was reported in the region of Lombardy, and Bergamo has become one of the epicentres of the infection in Italy. More than a third of Valencia’s players were also infected, along with several fans.

A strong social element

Football is a sport that’s best enjoyed live, at the stadium, surrounded by fellow fans shouting, cheering, and chanting on the stands. In the current public health crisis, in turn, this is out of the question. All football leagues that have resumed after the lockdown are keeping fans away. Bundesliga's post-lockdown schedule involves “ghost games” only, and the English Premier League’s “Project Restart” also involves matches played behind closed doors, with minimal personnel. Football does have a social element, interactions between players, between players and officials, and between the teams and the fans. The latter is missing from post-COVID football, and this does have an effect on the players. After his first post-lockdown match, Bayern Munich star Thomas Mueller described the experience as “old man’s football, 7 PM, under floodlights”. Of course, once the game actually began, the ball stole focus from the empty seats, and things returned to normal.

Fuel to the fire?

Even with these restrictions, some Premier League teams are worried about the return of football - or rather the lack of social distancing that goes with it. Some club representatives expressed concern that even if they don’t have access to the stands, football fans may gather around stadiums during the matches or gather at home to watch the games live - and, as you might expect, ignore social distancing rules as a whole. And if this results in an increase of active cases, many could point fingers at football, in general - and football clubs, of course - for the situation. Opening up the stands, limiting the number of fans who have access to the stadium, and enforcing strict social distancing may work… then again, it may not. In Hungary, the Puskás Arena allowed around 10,000 fans on the stands - a fraction of its capacity. While the rules were clear - fans were supposed to wear masks and keep at least an empty seat between them - they couldn’t help but group together. At some matches, the players ran among the fans - the Hungarian Football Association has even given out some hefty fines for this reason. And there is no way to know yet if this has had any public health effects.

Although the number of new infections seems to be decreasing across Europe, and governments are easing restrictions as we speak, let’s not forget that the pandemic is not over yet. Many think football is returning too soon - including many Premier League fans, according to a recent survey conducted by YouGov. And if even they think so, it may indeed be a bit too soon for football to return.