Coronavirus continues to close doors on football across Europe
Ireland’s playoff against Slovakia will be played behind closed doors, if it’s played at all
Tuesday night’s Champions League match between Valencia and Atalanta was played at an empty Estadio Mestalla due to the coronavirus outbreak. Photograph: EPA
As the coronavirus crisis continued to worsen both here and abroad and the related chaos affecting European football also spread, the Slovak Football Federation confirmed that the Euro 2020 play-off game against Ireland will be played behind closed doors on March 26th. Presuming, that is, that the match goes ahead at all.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the association in Bratislava said that having taken into consideration the measures recommended by the Slovak authorities and consulted with Uefa and the FAI, the decision had been taken to exclude spectators from the match which is scheduled to be played at their new National Football Stadium.
That decision is certainly not likely to be reversed but given the hard line taken by the Slovaks on containing the virus – closing schools, public buildings and cancelling flights to and from Italy well before Aer Lingus and Ryanair decided to - it does not seem out of the question that the game itself could come under further threat if the growth in the number of cases confirmed here becomes more dramatic over the coming days and weeks.
“I think everybody in football listens to local government, national government and health executives and you’re literally following orders and that’s what they’re doing here,” acknowledged FAI Deputy CEO Niall Quinn on Virgin Media. “We’re going to have to do it ourselves at this moment in time for the game in Slovakia. And that may even change to full cancellation. Who knows? All football can do is take orders and react.”
As it stands, both associations say that those supporters who bought tickets for the game will be refunded while Bosnia and Herzegovina has postponed the sale of tickets for its game against Northern Ireland, initially for “several days” as the number of confirmed cases there reached five and there were calls to close the border.
“It’s not in my control, so dwelling on it too much is not really beneficial,” said manager Michael O’Neill about the situation as he named his squad for the game.
“We’ll have to follow any instructions we are given, but the most important thing is our preparation and making sure that we are ready to play,” he said.
Although the Bosnians have not yet specifically suggested that that playoff semi-final will be played behind closed doors, it does seem likely at this stage, something O’Neill readily acknowledged.
“Yeah, you would probably have to think along those lines,” he said. “Obviously there is concern at their end and they have to assess the situation. That probably heightens the possibility that we might play behind closed doors.”
In terms of competitive advantage, he suggested: “We’ll have to deal with the situation whatever it might be on the 26th of March but it probably takes away from the home team. When we played them in the Nations League, it was a hostile, partisan atmosphere in the stadium; it was a wonderful atmosphere too but you would have to say that it would probably hurt them (more) than it would us.”
There is also the question of whether players like Juventus’ Miralem Pjanic and Roma forward Edin Dzeko will get home for the game, given the scale of the problem in Italy, something that is of even more relevance in relation to Slovakia with seven of the squad for their games in November playing in Serie A or B.
Serie A’s current campaign, the Italian Federation acknowledged on Tuesday, might not now finish at all with the FIGC President, Gabriele Gravina, suggesting that with games suspended at present until at least April 3rd allowing the current table to stand as final, holding playoffs to decide the destination of the title or simply not having champions for this season are among the fall-back plans being considered.
In France and Spain, meanwhile, clubs games will, like a growing number of prominent matches in European competitions, be played behind closed doors for the next couple of weeks.
Among the many to be held in empty stadiums, it was confirmed on Tuesday, will be Manchester United’s Europa League game at LASK Linz in Austria on Thursday as well as Barcelona’s game against Napoli next Wednesday and Chelsea’s at Bayern Munich the same night.
The Polish league, meanwhile, has been suspended until further notice and Premier League executive director Bill Bush he was not “going to comment on things that are speculative,” when asked about the possibility of games there being played behind closed doors.
Pre-match handshakes have been banned, though, and some clubs are reported to have instructed players not to sign autographs.
On Sunday, the French authorities had announced a ban on all gatherings of more than 1,000 people; a policy that would either result in the suspension of the Airtricity League if adopted here or precipitate a huge financial crisis among its clubs.
The Irish League has been affected in the most direct way imaginable with Linfield confirming that one of the club’s players (it declined to say which one) has contracted coronavirus and that a “deep clean” of Windsor Park will be carried out over the next couple of days.
Nottingham Forest owner, Evangelos Marinakis, who attended his club’s Championship game against Millwall on Friday, has also tested positive for the condition, it has been confirmed.
“The club are seeking advice from medical professionals and the relevant governing bodies to ensure the correct measures are taken,” said Forest in a statement.