It’s frankly unusual to see club Presidents accusing the Minister for Sport of “hating football,” but Vincenzo Spadafora has made the entire post-coronavirus situation infinitely more difficult than it needs to be. Which I guess is the traditional role of an Italian politician, so in that sense he is very much on brand.
Over the last few weeks he has several times contradicted what his own Prime Minister said just hours beforehand, repeatedly threatened to pull the plug on the biggest sport in Italy and shown a distinct lack of understanding when it comes to what training actually involves. As we thunder towards decision day, players in some clubs are returning to training today without knowing if the entire season will be cancelled in 48 hours.
The whole thing has been a shambles, and yes, I am aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy of immeasurable proportions. Those military vehicles with coffins filing out of Bergamo will remain the most haunting image we’ll see in history books when our current feelings are being discussed by school children decades from now, as they write essays about our lockdown rainbows and shameful lack of PPE. But this is a sport website, we’re talking about a Minister for Sport who has done nothing but damage the situation he is employed to facilitate.
Spadafora seems determined to put football back in its place, as if this is a long-awaited opportunity to show the importance of other sports in the country. Unfortunately, he’s forgetting the reason football has to continue – above all now the peak has passed and we move into Phase Two of the pandemic response today – is that it’s a multi-billion Euro industry whose taxes alone keep all the other sports in Italy going. So many clubs barely keep their heads above water at the best of times, a shutdown like this would be catastrophic for the entire sporting industry, not to mention the knock-on effect for media when Italy has three daily newspapers dedicated entirely to sporting endeavours. The number of people employed in and around football is staggering, from kit staff to caterers, drivers and press officers. Something like tennis simply doesn’t compare.
Ligue 1 will probably regret pulling the plug so early on their tournament, but just as the others are working their way towards a return, Italy is dragging its heels. The latest Government decree was a ludicrous exercise in futile chaos when what we all needed was clarity. Who thought it was a good idea for professional athletes to go running in a local park dodging bicycles and prams for two weeks before he could set foot in a training centre where social distancing can be guaranteed? When the Government released a statement confirming that had been changed, Spadafora popped up hours later to insist “team training will not resume before May 18 and resuming the season is something that hasn’t really been talked about.”
One can only hope Spadafora has simply misunderstood what training involves, as in the early stages after weeks of being stuck indoors, just running in a straight line on some grass is already a big step forward in terms of fitness. It would also be worrying if a Minister for Sport who attended so many meetings still didn’t understand what he was trying to ban.
As it turns out, the heel-dragging has delayed a return to training anyway, because if they hadn’t announced it less than 24 hours before the centres were due to open, clubs would’ve had time to test their players for COVID-19. Now that whole process begins now rather than last week.
I realise the moral conundrum of this whole situation, but Italy was the first one hit by the pandemic and it would’ve been a reassuring sign if it had been the first to attempt a return to normality too. These athletes are in a position to be checked constantly with swabs and blood tests, MRIs and extensive physical checks, running far fewer risks than someone working in a supermarket.
If Atalanta are eager to get going again after the scenes in Bergamo, then it means football is a unifying force that will help the country move forward. Calcio is as much an element of Italian life as pizza, pasta and a passeggiata in the sunshine.