The pandemic that swept across the globe this year has brought sports to a screeching halt pretty much everywhere. While there were some countries that pushed suspending their seasons as far as they could, most of them ultimately gave in. At the peak of the pandemic in Europe, Belarus was the only country that kept its football league running. All other countries suspended their leagues, closed their stadiums, and most of them ordered their citizens to stay at home as much as possible.
After months of being locked inside – with no live sports to watch – people are eager to finally see their favorite teams return to the turf. The teams will, indeed, return – in some countries, they already have. But the fans will have to follow their favorite teams from home because, in most countries, all matches will be played behind closed doors.
Most countries decided it will be the safest course of action will be to keep the fans at home, and only allow the players, the officials, and a skeleton crew of essential personnel into the stadiums. There is one notable exception: Hungary, a country that wasn’t hit very hard by the disease (it only had around 4000 cases so far).
Hungary decided to resume its football games a while ago… but it was one of the few countries that also decided to allow fans (in limited numbers, of course) at the stadium. Going to a football match these days is like spinning a slot machine at the Vegas Palms Casino – except if you lose, you may get infected with a virus with no vaccine, and no cure. The government imposed social distancing… and the fans pretty much ignored these, despite having more than enough space to do so (the number of fans allowed to enter the Puskás Arena in Budapest for the NB1 final was just 10,000 – a fraction of the venue’s total capacity).
Back in February, Bergamo’s Atalanta was hosting Spain’s Valencia at the San Siro Stadium in Milan, Italy. About a third of Bergamo’s population, along with thousands of Spanish fans flocked to the venue – unbeknownst to them, at least some were infected with the novel coronavirus. The result: more than a third of Valencia’s team members were infected (not to mention countless fans), and Bergamo became one of the epicenters of the disease in Italy. The match, later named “Game Zero”, is a cautionary tale that likely contributed to taking some of the measures across Europe.
While the authorities can stop supporters from entering the stadiums, they can’t stop them from gathering around them. This, of course, can be a public health risk – it may very well trigger new flare-ups of the disease. And it will be easy to point fingers on football for it.
Is football returning too soon? Well, it depends on who you ask. The fans who can’t wait to see their favorite teams play and the clubs that see their revenues melt away certainly don’t think so. But if you ask a public health expert, their opinion will be very different.