Latest updates from the football world as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe
- An in-depth look at how the coronavirus has affected footballing activities in 2020.
The world was rocked by the devastating news of the outbreak of a novel respiratory disease that originated in the city of Wuhan, Hebei, China in December 2019.
The virus is from the family of a severe acute respiratory syndrome, with similarities to previous global epidemics like the SARS virus in 2003 and the MERS which was first reported in 2012.
However, unlike the former two, COVID-19 has reached far-greater lengths and has affected more people, leading the World Health Organization to declare it a global pandemic on 11 March 2020.
As at the time of writing, the virus is prevalent in more than 120 countries and territories of the world, with over 128,000 cases and 4,600 deaths recorded.
Symptoms include but are not limited to fever, coughs, and shortness of breath, as well as flu-like symptoms, while the spread of the disease comes after contact with contaminated respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing.
There is currently no known vaccine but researchers and scientists are working round the clock to develop one, while preventive measures such as regular washing of hands (preferably with hand sanitizers), maintaining distances in public places, wearing of facial masks, avoiding touching the face or respiratory organs as much as possible, and self-isolation whenever possible are suggested.
Stringent measures have been put in place in affected countries around the world including city-wide lockdowns and travel restrictions, with China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea among the worst-hit countries.
Given the outdoor and contact nature of football, the game has also been affected by the outbreak of the virus and there have been measures taken to limit infections at games as well as protect the health and safety of fans and footballers.
Here, we shall be giving an update on how the footballing world has been affected by the Coronavirus.
Suspension of leagues and cancellation of matches
The Switzerland FA (SFL) was one of the earliest associations to take a definite stand on curtailing the coronavirus and they announced on March 2 that all football in its top two divisions (Super League and Challenge League) would be suspended until at least March 23.
Italy has the highest number of recorded cases outside of China and the country witnessed the highest death toll in a single day, with 168 deaths recorded on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.
Earlier, the country's prime minister had ordered total lockdowns in the northern area of the country, while some matches of matchday 24 in Serie A were postponed amidst calls from Mario Balotelli and the president of the Italian Players' association for the league to be suspended indefinitely.
The postponed matches were played behind closed doors over the last weekend including the marquee clash between Inter Milan and Juventus on Sunday, but 24 hours later, the FIGC rescinded its decision and suspended the league indefinitely, while admitting that the current season might not reach a definite conclusion.
On March 12, the Spanish authorities announced that the top two divisions (LaLiga and LaLiga 2) of the Spanish league would be suspended for at least the next two rounds of matches, while the final of the Copa del Rey between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao has also been postponed.
Other football leagues that have announced the total suspension of matches in the country are Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, and of course China and some other Asian nations, while breaking reports suggest that UEFA is considering suspension of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League after the conclusion of the current round.
Matches to be played behind closed doors, handshakes banned
Beyond the entire suspension of matches, another popular palliative measure has been to play the matches without spectators and European fixtures, including most of the Champions League and Europa League matches, would be played behind closed doors.
Five of the nine Bundesliga fixtures to be played this weekend would be without fans and the Premier League would be played behind closed doors, while Greece, Bulgaria, France, Poland are some of the other countries to have taken this measure.
The Scottish FA, however, categorically told its clubs that it could not financially sustain the league without matchday income and no definite measure has been announced about the Scottish league yet.
Pre-match handshakes by players and officials have also been banned by most football associations including the Premier League, Bundesliga, and UEFA in a bid to limit the potential spread of the virus.
Confirmed cases and quarantined players
The footballing world was relatively free from any positive case of the virus for the first three months of its outbreak, with the first confirmed case being when four players from Serie C side US Pianese ASD tested positive at the start of March.
There has, however, been a surge in confirmed high-profile cases in the last one week, with Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis confirming on Tuesday, March 10 that he had tested positive to the virus.
Just a week earlier, the Greek multimillionaire had watched his side's Europa League clash with Arsenal from the VIP box and frolicked with some of the players in the dressing room afterward and this revelation led to the quarantining of the Gunners, while their rescheduled clash with Manchester City was postponed once again pending the outcome of tests.
Beyond his ties with Olympiakos, Marinakis also owns English Championship side Nottingham Forest but the club released a statement that all players, staff, and officials have been tested and results all came back negative and it is expected that their clash with Millwall this weekend is expected to go on as scheduled.
The German league was also rocked with the news that Hannover 96 defender Timo Hubers tested positive to the virus on Wednesday, March 11, leading to the quarantine of his teammates. Despite playing in the Bundesliga 2, most of the second division clubs share training facilities and stadiums with the top-flight teams in Germany and this could have far-reaching consequences on football in the country.
Italian and Juventus defender Daniele Rugani tested positive late at night on Wednesday and it has been revealed that his teammates have been placed on quarantine, while Cristiano Ronaldo stayed behind in his hometown of Madeira to avoid the risks in Italy.
Inter Milan (who were Juventus' last opponent) have also suspended all sporting activities and are conducting tests to know the next step to take.
In Spain, a player for the Real Madrid basketball team tested positive to the virus and as a result, all players of the Real Madrid first team have been put up for testing, with both the basketball and football teams sharing training facilities.
Rejected flights, proposals for cancellations and taking unnecessary risks
Beyond football, flights from high-risk countries have been blacklisted by several countries and given the severe rate of infection in Italy, the country is one of those that have been hit the hardest by travel restrictions.
In unique scenes, the flight carrying Roma players for their Europa League clash with Sevilla was forbidden from entering the Spanish airway, leading to the cancellation of the fixture, while Getafe also refused to honour their trip to Milan to take on Inter Milan.
Wolverhampton Wanderers saw a petition to UEFA to cancel their fixture with Olympiakos rejected by the European footballing body and despite calling the trip to Greece an 'unnecessary risk', the game is expected to go on as expected.
What is the outlook for football?
Given the extremely quick rate at which the coronavirus is spreading, unless a cure is found for the virus as soon as possible, it is highly likely that the footballing calendar for the 2019-20 season would be heavily altered.
As it stands, there are already heavy backlogs of fixtures across most major and minor leagues and it could get worse in the coming weeks unless a definite measure is put in place.
Despite heavy losses in terms of revenue for television broadcasters and league sponsors, it is expected that most football leagues would have an outright cancellation or indefinite suspension in the coming days.
Tournaments that are to be hosted further down the line including the European Championship and Olympic Games have also been cast into severe doubt, with qualification matches that were supposed to take place in a fortnight now in jeopardy of being cancelled.
This is a less than ideal situation for football fans who have been used to having entertaining football matches on weekends for decades but the health of the players and officials should take precedence over entertainment and financial reward and it is better to take a break from footballing activities than run the risk of suffering more infections or deaths from the virus.
Published 12 Mar 2020, 20:02 IST