The UEFA Champions League returns on Tuesday, when the group stage of the world’s most prestigious competition for club teams commences in earnest.
Enjoy it while you still can. Because as much as fans are looking forward to seeing the planet’s best players and teams battle for European soccer supremacy again just eight weeks after last season’s tournament concluded, there’s a nagging, growing sense that the unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic will impact this season’s version, too.
In fact, it already has.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the five-time Champions League winner and its all-time leading scorer, won’t be in Juventus’ starting lineup when the Italian titans begin play Tuesday at Dynamo Kiev. American midfielder Weston McKennie will miss out, too. Both men contracted COVID-19 last week, and they are not alone.
Club Brugge will be be without three infected players in Simon Mignolet, Odilon Kossounou and Michael Krmencik, who all remained in Belgium as their teammates traveled to Russia for Tuesday’s tangle with Zenit St. Petersburg. As of now, that match is scheduled to go ahead as planned. Under UEFA’s protocols, games can proceed so long as a team has 13 healthy players, including a goalkeeper.
As coronavirus cases spike throughout Europe, though, it feels inevitable that a match is going to have to be postponed because of an outbreak within a squad. We’ve seen this repeatedly in North American sports in recent months, with literally dozens of games in the NFL, MLS, MLB and college football moved or called off. With the group stage already condensed by a month — it usually starts in September — and domestic leagues facing a similar scheduling crunch, finding room in the calendar for make-up dates will be close to impossible.
Staging an international event in the middle of a pandemic presents other challenges. Generally speaking, the willy-nilly crossing of national borders is not recommended by infectious disease experts. Ronaldo contracted the virus just before joining the Portuguese national team. Mignolet tested positive after returning from duty with Belgium. There hasn’t been a widespread outbreak caused by other players returning from all corners of Earth, at least not yet.
But COVID-19 is notoriously unpredictable. UEFA approved the plan for the 2020-21 over the summer, when cases in Europe were falling. Even then, European soccer’s governing body decided the best way to crown a 2020 champion was to play all matches from the quarterfinals on inside a bubble in Portugal. That was in August. Two months on, with soccer capitals either mulling lockdowns or already enforcing them, like Liverpool, some of the game’s most famous clubs and players are jetting around the continent like it’s business as usual.
Clubs are always going to attempt to play, of course. Local authorities charged with keeping the larger population safe aren’t likely to be swayed by sporting ambitions, however. The hard reality is that from a health perspective, the situation on the ground in Europe isn’t good and it’s getting worse. At some point, if things continue this way, officials will effectively pull the plug by banning travel or instituting quarantine rules that make carrying on untenable.
The Champions League returns on Tuesday. That’s a good thing. Games will be played, and even without supporters in attendance, some of them promise to be truly delicious affairs. Former champs Liverpool and Ajax meet in Amsterdam. Holders Bayern Munich entertain Atletico Madrid. Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain, who last faced off in a memorable round of 16 clash two years ago, will tangle once again. There’s Dortmund-Lazio and Chelsea-Sevilla, too.
Soak all of it in folks, from the opening whistle to the final kick of the ball. Because what happens after this week is anyone’s guess.
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