Italian football and leading by example are never normally associated. This is, after all, a nation that is light years behind the rest of Europe on a whole array of issues, ranging from tackling racism, redeveloping stadiums and the systemic culture of blaming referees, to collective TV rights, blatant self-interest and a general aversion to modernising the way in which clubs are run.
And yet, with the Coronavirus now declared a worldwide pandemic by the WHO this week, Italian football can be somewhat proud of the steps it took in suspending games, and ultimately the league altogether. For once, the much-maligned officials that run the FIGC and the Lega Serie A can be considered examples in the on-going COVID-19 crisis.
It was only yesterday that the Premier League finally relented and suspended their competition after coming under serious scrutiny, despite intentions to forge on this weekend. The Bundesliga was the last organisation to suspend its league, and had also planned to carry on this weekend, albeit playing games behind closed doors for this round of fixtures and suspend the league from Monday. But, after finally seeing sense, they also got in line.
The point must be made of course that Serie A was the first organisation to react due to Italy being the hardest hit country in Europe. The country exploded as the epicentre of the pandemic outside of China, with Inter’s postponed game against Sampdoria three weeks ago being the first official match to be cancelled because of the virus.
As is often the way with Serie A, heels were dragged and indecision ran riot as multiple bodies within the country struggled to come to terms with the seemingly lightning-quick spread of the disease. Cancel the season? Suspend certain games, but allow others to play? Play behind closed doors? It’s fair to say that certain decisions that were ultimately made wouldn’t be made again with the benefit of hindsight.
Yet Lega Serie A and the FIGC should be given some benefit of the doubt, considering they were on the front line facing a new strain of virus, but what about the other leagues? Why weren’t they stopped sooner? Even now, precautionary measures are slight in England, despite Arsenal boss Mikael Arteta testing positive for the virus.
It’s an issue former Juventus and current West Ham defender Angelo Ogbonna touched upon in an interview with the Corriere della Sera. “It’s almost as if they are waiting for someone to die before taking action,” said Ogbonna. “It’s just not football, but this is ingrained in the English mentality. They still don’t realise the danger of a virus that can be passed on in seconds if you don’t behave in the right way.
“I haven’t been checked or tested in any way. That is another testament to an attitude that is at the very least superficial,” continued the defender.
Carlo Ancelotti also reinforced the point to La Gazzetta dello Sport. “We’re not really self-isolating at all, some prevention measures did come after a player had a fever.” It’s generally accepted now that the situation in Italy would’ve been much graver had the government not decided to first lock down certain red zones, and then later the entire country. Yet walk around London in recent days and it feels like just another day of the week, save for people panic-buying copious amounts of toilet roll.
Spain, Germany and France are no different in that regard, all three nations tried desperately to continue their respective seasons, ordering games to go ahead behind closed doors. Whilst no doubt each were trying to make do in extenuating circumstances, what is a game of football without fans? As anyone who watched the Derby d’Italia can attest to, hearing every kick of the ball, every tactical instruction, every groan of a player falling to the ground is a surreal experience and, ultimately, isn’t a positive one. It provided evidence, if ever really needed, that the fans make the game, not vice versa.
Paris Saint-Germain also proved that playing behind closed doors is futile if people don’t realise the scale of the problem. Thousands gathered outside their Champions League game with Bayer Leverkusen, the French media even praised their ‘passion’ rather than condemn the mass stupidity, and Layvin Kurzawa took the biscuit by throwing himself into the crowd of complete strangers after the final whistle.
With the sport ground to a halt for the foreseeable future, there are a myriad of issues to be decided, and clubs across Europe could face financial ruin if the pandemic stretches into the summer months. Yet there is no doubting that the correct decision was made by all leagues to down tools.
And for once, Italy - perhaps begrudgingly - led by example.