PARIS, France, Mar 16 – Silent stadiums and empty venues made for a gloomy weekend for sports fans but the fear on Monday was it could only get worse amid the widening coronavirus pandemic.
With governments opting for increasingly stringent bans on the size and number of public gatherings, most major sports events across the world have been suspended or scrapped.
What happens next may become clearer on Tuesday when UEFA officials meet to discuss whether football’s showpiece European championships, the year’s biggest sporting event along with the Tokyo Olympics, should go ahead.
UEFA have already scrapped the coming week’s mouthwatering round of Champions League and Europe League ties. Any hope that the Euro 2020 would be spared an increasingly Europe-wide virus lockdown was hard to sustain as the death toll and the number of COVID-19 cases spiralled and the continent became the new epicentre of the disease.
The fact was hammered home when Chinese footballers from Wuhan, where the virus first emerged late last year, were seen fleeing back home from Europe, where they had initially exiled themselves to escape the illness.
The public mood has also apparently shifting from disappointment that sport has been sacrificed, to support for measures aimed at staying healthy and saving lives.
A social media backlash hit organisers for allowing the showpiece Cheltenham Festival to go ahead last week with more than 250,000 spectators attending, one of the few recent events escaping spectator bans. All horse racing in Britain has now been moved behind closed doors.
The shift in mood was illustrated too by the apology from Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz centre and the first NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus.
He was guilty of making light of the virus when the subject came up at a press conference a week ago — two days before he tested positive and the entire NBA season was suspended.
“I wish I would’ve taken this thing more seriously and I hope everyone else is going to do so because we can do it together. Take care and stay safe,” the 27-year-old Frenchman said Sunday.
– Save lives –
Many European governments are taking no chances about the spread of the virus and there are those who believe football’s Euro 2020, scheduled to take place in 12 countries across the continent from June 12 to July 12, should also be postponed.
The head of the Italian football federation, Gabriele Gravina, has expresed that view and Italy coach Roberto Mancini says he is open to the proposal.
“Let’s wait to see what UEFA decides, but I adapt to everything, right now the priority is to save lives,” he said.
Italy are set to host the opening match in Rome on June 12, but for the moment all sport has been suspended with the nation’s 60 million inhabitants in lockdown.
“The fact is that the problems we are having now other nations will have shortly,” said Mancini, the former Manchester City and Inter Milan boss.
Europe’s top football competitions have already suspended their seasons and Liverpool’s first stab at winning the Premier League after a 30-year-wait passed them by on Monday.
They could have picked up the trophy at Goodison Park if Manchester City had lost to Burnley on Saturday — but the feat remains hypothetical as neither match was allowed to take place.
Meanwhile there were signs of a change of tone in Japan about the Tokyo Olympics, with opposition growing to holding the Games as scheduled.
Until now the International Olympic Committee and Japanese officials have indicated preparations for the event set to be held between July 24 and August 9 should continue as planned.
Public opinion may be wavering, however. A poll on Monday showed 69.9 percent of the Japanese population believed the Games would not be held as scheduled.
Koki Miura, a 27-year-old employee at an internet company, told AFP they should be delayed or cancelled.
“We cannot sacrifice people’s lives for it,” said Miura.