La Liga gets its wish for season return but not without compromise
La Liga president Javier Tebas said the games would have to go on and from Thursday they will, with stadiums full of virtual fans, crowd noise from a computer game and fewer than 300 people allowed to attend.
As Ligue 1 in France was called off and the Premier League, still the benchmark for Spanish football, tied itself in knots, La Liga has been steadfast in its pursuit of completion.
“I always believed we would play again,” said Tebas on Sunday.
The government in Spain had indicated it would be good for morale, perhaps even important for their standing in the world, while the country’s infatuation with football meant the prime minister was often addressing the question of its return.
Yet driving La Liga’s determination, as Tebas admitted, was the fear of financial meltdown. Cancellation would cost clubs a billion euros, he repeated, and no team would be spared.
Even with the season about to resume, Barcelona and Real Madrid have had to impose pay cuts. Atletico Madrid said they enforced a drop in wages “to guarantee their future”.
Public opposition to the season continuing has therefore been fleeting. Eibar’s players said last month they were “afraid” to go back to training while Valencia’s Gabriel Paulista was one of the few to say it felt rushed.
Among the governing bodies, the players’ union (AFE) was sidelined and even the conflict between La Liga and the Spanish football federation (RFEF) was largely put on hold.
Instead, La Liga has answered to the health authorities, who have always had the power to scrap even the most advanced plans at any given moment.
So when Sevilla host Real Betis on Thursday to begin a 39-day sprint finish with matches every day, they will do so according to strict guidelines that even this week were still being updated.
“We’ve planned everything to the last millimetre,” Tebas said.
Infection risk ‘practically zero’
Players will be tested for coronavirus within 24 hours of kick-off and visiting teams will use exclusive flights and hotels, before travelling to stadiums in two buses to ensure social distancing is maintained. Home team players will arrive in their own cars.
Both sets of players will have their temperatures taken before entering stadiums and will arrive wearing masks and gloves. All communal areas like changing rooms will be disinfected and aired before, during and after games.
Only 270 people will be allowed inside stadiums, including club players and staff, doctors and security personnel, matchday and club officials, as well as press and technicians.
During the match, fans watching on television can choose to adopt a virtual experience that puts images of seated supporters, wearing the colours of the home team, in the stands.
There will be artificial sound too taken from the computer game FIFA, using audio recorded from real matches — that will then be adapted and implemented according to the flow of the action.
Tributes will be paid to the victims and heroes of the coronavirus pandemic, in the form of a minute’s silence before kick-off and applause, contributed by real supporters and transmitted inside the stadium, in the 20th minute.
Tebas has insisted the risk of infection once games are in play is “practically zero” given the amount of physical contact but the summer heat in Spain must be considered too.
Fixture lists now come with temperature predictions and, already, two kick-off times have been adjusted. Five substitutes will be allowed instead of three, as well as two drinks breaks.
Some regions in Spain have moved faster through the government’s de-escalation programme than others and Tebas has said he would be in favour of clubs bringing supporters back when they can.
That could accelerate the league’s initial timetable for 30 per cent of fans to return in September, 50 per cent in November and 100 per cent in January 2021. Until then, everyone will have to adapt.
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