ZURICH (Reuters) - The policy of playing soccer matches without spectators as a way of keeping the show on the road during the coronavirus outbreak has been widely questioned on health grounds and because of the surreal atmosphere it creates in empty stadiums.
The next round of games in the top flight of the French, Spanish and Portuguese leagues will be played without fans as will some Bundesliga matches. There have also been matches behind closed doors in the Champions League and Europa League.
But the system has been rejected in Italy, Europe’s worst-affected country. Having initially approved Serie A matches with empty stadiums a week ago, the government back-tracked on Monday and banned matches until April 3 as the coronavirus continued to spread and an unprecedented nationwide lockdown was imposed.
Other leagues, such as Switzerland and Austria — where governments have banned large gatherings — have preferred to put competitions on hold rather than play in empty stadiums.
“From our point of view, ghost games are always the last resort to ensure competition security,” said Christian Ebenbauer, chairman of the Austrian Bundesliga, using a German-language term for games in empty stadiums.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said: “We play for the people. If the people can’t be there, it makes no sense. It’s like an actor going to the theatre and nobody is watching.”
The Spanish players’ union (AFE) and the umbrella group of supporters’ associations (FASPE) said they would prefer competitions to be postponed, with the latter adding “it does not make sense” to play without fans.
On Wednesday, the global players’ union FIFPRO said that, while empty stadiums were aimed at reducing the spread of the virus among the public, players remained at risk.
“Professional footballers, like other workers, are concerned about themselves and their families and friends being exposed to the coronavirus during their daily lives,” it said in a statement.
“For players their exposure could come during travel, training and match days. Any actions relating to these activities must be coordinated in close cooperation with players and their unions.”
Some observers have warned that fans will go to the stadiums in any case, creating its own risk.
On Tuesday, Valencia hosted Atalanta in a Champions League match played behind closed doors on a government recommendation as the visitors were from northern Italy, a high-risk zone for coronavirus.
Even so, hundreds of Valencia fans assembled near the ground, in close proximity to each other, despite concerns that gatherings could help spread the disease. European soccer’s governing body UEFA could not immediately be reached for comment.
Until now, the main argument for playing on without fans has been that it is the only way to finish the season in time.
But the Italian football federation (FIGC) has now set a precedent by accepting Serie A might not finish as planned and suggesting a playoff system might be used instead to determine the champions and relegated teams once games can go ahead again.
As more governments impose travel restrictions and it becomes more and more difficult to organise games, other competition organisers may also see that as a solution.
Writing by Brian Homewood; editing by Ken Ferris