Italy is the first European country to suffer an outbreak of COVID-19, the strain of coronavirus that originated in China and has caused more than 2,700 deaths to date. As of Wednesday morning, the number of suspected cases in Italy was 259 and thus far, there have been 12 deaths.
The government instituted precautionary measures Sunday to limit the spread of the virus.
Two areas in northern Italy have been “red zoned” with travel in and out restricted, affecting some 42,000 people. In an effort to further limit contagion, the government has ordered the closure of schools, bars and cinemas in six northern Italian regions. Many employers have told workers to stay home, and many churches suspended weekly Mass on Sunday. And, most significantly for football, sporting events in those six northern regions — Lombardia, Veneto, Piemonte, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria and Emilia Romagna — will be held behind closed doors at least until March 1.
Q: What is the idea behind it?
A: It’s purely precautionary; think of it like an initiative to limit large groups of people gathering together in close proximity. Even Milan Fashion Week has been running its catwalk shows in near-empty rooms.
Q: Which soccer games have been affected so far?
A: Four Serie A games were postponed last weekend, while Thursday’s Europa League match between Inter and Ludogorets at the San Siro will take place behind closed doors.
This weekend, another six games in Serie A, including the top-of-the-table clash between Juventus and Inter on Sunday night, will be watched by just a few hundred people: mostly team officials and media. The other games affected as of Tuesday are Milan vs. Genoa, Udinese vs. Fiorentina, Parma vs. SPAL, Sassuolo vs. Brescia and Sampdoria vs. Verona.
There are no restrictions on fans traveling to matches in other parts of the country, while Serie A rights-holders in Italy are considering showing the games for free on television.
Q: Couldn’t they just postpone the affected upcoming games?
A: They already did that with the games last weekend. They could postpone some games of teams not involved in Europe, but for the others there is simply no room in the fixture list, particularly with the season having to end slightly early because of this summer’s European Championships. You just can’t squeeze in any more games.
Thirty-five lower division games have been postponed. So too have games in other sports, from rugby to volleyball.
Q. Tell us about the other sports for a moment. What has been impacted?
Italian boxer Daniele Scardina was set to defend his IBF International super middleweight title against France’s Andrew Francillette in Milan on Friday, but organiser Matchroom said in a statement Monday the ‘Milano Boxing Night’ would be postponed as a result of the regional restrictions implemented in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Italy’s men’s and women’s Six Nations rugby clashes with Ireland were postponed on Wednesday morning, while a women’s match between Italy and Scotland in Milan on March 1 was also called off, with organisers looking to reschedule this fixture at a later date.
Other rugby games this weekend in the PRO14 were postponed, as well as matches in Italy’s national Top 12 league and all domestic rugby activities below the championship.
Q: How long is this going to last?
A: It’s impossible to tell right now. Vincenzo Spadafora, Italy’s Minister for Sport, said they would evaluate whether to lift the restrictions in the coming days. It would take another emergency government decree to extend them past March 1.
Q: Back to soccer: Could teams play in neutral venues in areas not affected by the restrictions?
A: It’s something that has been discussed. Nobody enjoys playing behind closed doors and, of course, you lose out on box office income that can, for smaller clubs, be significant. Several clubs have already begun the process of refunding fans, with Atalanta, Juventus and Inter all in the restricted regions.
There has been talk of Juventus playing their return leg against Olympique Lyonnais somewhere other than Turin, and it remains a possibility for Inter in the Europa League and Atalanta to host teams at neutral sites in the Champions League should they advance to the next round. But right now, it’s just talk and it might not even be viable. The situation would have to persist for another couple of weeks, and if that happens, it’s not clear that areas elsewhere would be thrilled at the prospect of thousands of fans traveling from infected cities.
Q: What are the implications for teams playing away to Italian clubs?
A: Barcelona were given fever tests when they arrived in Naples ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Napoli drew a lot of attention, but in fact such tests have been routine for anyone arriving in Italian airports for the past three weeks. Barcelona coach Quique Setien played things down, saying “I’m not at all worried for my team. I’m worried for all those infected … for us it was only a test for a fever, nothing more.” That’s how most are treating it right now.
Q: Looking further ahead, Italy is a Euro 2020 venue; any word on that possibly being affected?
UEFA issued a statement on Wednesday, saying “there is no need to change anything in the planned timetable” while also adding that “the issue will be kept under constant scrutiny.”
With additional information from Alex Pattle