Italy targets quick return of football fans to stadiums

A general view of the San Siro Stadium in Milan, Italy. (Shutterstock photo)
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Updated 04 June 2020

Italy targets quick return of football fans to stadiums

  • The football season has been halted since early March and until mid-May teams were not even allowed to train together

ROME: It seemed an impossible prospect just a few weeks ago in a country ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, but in Italy the idea of a return of crowds to stadiums is now being floated as the football season prepares to restart.

Since football returned in Europe last month after the virus-imposed shutdown, clubs in Germany and elsewhere have come up with innovative ideas like filling seats with cardboard cutouts of fans. In Denmark supporters watching on Zoom appeared on video screens in stadiums.

However, Hungary last weekend became the first European country to allow supporters to return to grounds, albeit in limited numbers. The only exception on the continent in the last three months has been Belarus, where football never stopped and fans kept attending games.

Bulgaria, Switzerland and others could soon follow suit, but the idea of seeing fans return to stadiums in Italy takes some getting used to.

The country has attributed over 33,000 deaths to COVID-19, one of the highest rates in the world. The football season has been halted since early March and until mid-May teams were not even allowed to train together.

Nevertheless, the season is now preparing to return on the football-mad peninsula. The final stages of the Coppa Italia will be played out next week, before Serie A resumes on June 20.

Early matches will definitely go ahead behind closed doors, but clubs and authorities have expressed a willingness to at least partially open venues to supporters before the season’s new end date of Aug. 2.

Italy’s sports press has reported that Andrea Agnelli, the highly influential president of Juventus and the powerful European Club Association, was the first to address the subject.

At a meeting of the league last week, Agnelli reportedly said he expects that “the government will authorize a partial reopening of stadiums in July.” 

Italian Football Federation President (FIGC) Gabriele Gravina then said in a radio interview on Monday that it was his “heartfelt wish to be able to see a small presence in stadiums for the end of the championship.” 

“Certainly it is premature today but with the resumption of the championship, there could be a new little signal of hope for our country,” continued Gravina.

Clubs like Genoa and Sassuolo have given their backing to the idea.

There are two sides to the argument. On the one hand, the health situation is improving, with no indication yet of a much-feared second wave.

Indeed, cinemas, theaters and theme parks will all be allowed to reopen from June 15, albeit at limited capacity and with strict social distancing rules in place.

“If there are so many things we can do while respecting social distancing, I don’t see why we couldn’t fill 10 percent of large stadiums,” said Cosimo Sibilia, who oversees the country’s amateur league.

The clubs themselves hope that figure could be increased to 20 or even 25 percent. Press reports have suggested clubs are hoping to give priority to lucrative VIP seats, while others consider holding draws or a rotation system to allow season-ticket holders to take turns at attending games.

‘Fight Island’ concept debuts in Abu Dhabi on Sunday

Updated 11 July 2020

‘Fight Island’ concept debuts in Abu Dhabi on Sunday

  • Plan to be unveiled on Sunday with the staging of the 13-fight UFC 251 event on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island

DUBAI: When mixed martial arts supremo Dana White first floated his “Fight Island” concept, with its echoes of the Bruce Lee blockbuster “Enter the Dragon” where fighters were drawn into combat at a private getaway, eyebrows were raised.

“‘Fight Island’ is real. It’s a real thing,” said the Ultimate Fighting Championship boss when he announced the plan in April. “The infrastructure’s being built right now, and that’s really going to happen.”

White’s vision will be unveiled on Sunday with the staging of the 13-fight UFC 251 event on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.

The event will be headlined by a welterweight world title encounter between the Nigerian-American champion Kamaru Usman and Cuban-American challenger Jorge Masvidal.

It’s one of four “Fight Island” cards to be staged without an audience inside an arena on the resort and entertainment island throughout July, kicking off with three world title bouts and a title challenge eliminator.

Usman said during a virtual media event that he had been impressed by what he’d seen since arriving in the UAE on Thursday.

“I’m grateful for everything that’s been done,” said Usman, gunning for the second defense of his title. “All the precautions have been taken. After I go out there on Saturday and get my hand raised I’ll be glad to be heading home COVID-free.”

The UFC has made the move to Abu Dhabi from its Las Vegas base in an effort to isolate its fighters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safety has been a major motivator, as has the promoter’s need to keep staging events — and collecting revenue — during a crisis that has shut down or forced massive overhauls to the staging of the world’s major sporting events.

Strict lockdown measures have been imposed on athletes, their entourages, officials, staff and media for the duration of their stay on Yas Island, on a site that has been completely sealed off until the event concludes on July 26.

Tests were taken before people arrived — initial headliner Gilbert Burns of Brazil failed, and stayed home, Masvidal’s coach Mike Brown suffered the same fate — and after landing there has been more testing, and 48 hours in-room quarantine.

“We were able to lock away with some mats and pads in our room and keep training as much as we could,” said Russian welterweight Muslim Salikhov, who fights Brazil’s Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in Sunday’s preliminaries.

“The main thing everyone is saying is that we are here, and we are ready to fight because that’s what we do for a living.”

Abu Dhabi’s executive director of tourism and marketing, Ali Al-Shaiba, said protocols were stringent in the expansive “safe zone,” patrolled by police and expected to house around 2,000 people for the duration of the month-long event. Staff will be tested every 72 hours.