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.


The NBA MVP finalists: Antetokounmpo, James and Harden

Updated 09 August 2020

The NBA MVP finalists: Antetokounmpo, James and Harden

  • James would join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a six-time winner), Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the NBA’s only five-time MVPs
  • Antetokounmpo is bidding to become the 12th back-to-back winner of the award

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida: This season’s NBA MVP has won the award before.
A trio of past winners of the award — reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, four-time MVP LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and 2017-18 winner James Harden of the Houston Rockets — were announced Saturday as the finalists for this season’s top NBA individual honor.
James would join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a six-time winner), Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the NBA’s only five-time MVPs. Antetokounmpo is bidding to become the 12th back-to-back winner of the award, and Harden is vying for his second MVP in three seasons.
“He’s an incredible teammate, plays unselfishly, does everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo last month, stating his best player’s MVP case. “And I think that’s kind of what the MVP is, so we certainly feel like he’s very deserving and we’ll be excited to support him.”
Antetokounmpo is also a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, while Utah’s Rudy Gobert is bidding to win that trophy for a third consecutive season.
The league announced the top three vote-getters in six individual categories. Voting has already taken place by a global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters.
The NBA has not set specific dates when the winners will be announced.
None of the games taking place at the NBA’s restart at Walt Disney World factored into the voting, because ballots were due before games began again July 30.
The league took the step of saying games played before the league suspended the season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic could factor into award consideration, out of fairness to the eight teams that were not invited to the restart.
The other finalists for NBA honors:
Rookie of the Year — Ja Morant, Memphis; Kendrick Nunn, Miami; Zion Williamson, New Orleans.
Most Improved Player — Bam Adebayo, Miami; Luka Doncic, Dallas; Brandon Ingram, New Orleans.
Sixth Man — Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers; Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City; Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers.
Defensive Player of the Year — Antetokounmpo; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Rudy Gobert, Utah.
Coach of the Year — Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee; Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City; Nick Nurse, Toronto.


GASOL VS. GRIZZLIES
Marc Gasol spent parts of 11 seasons in Memphis, going to three All-Star Games with a Grizzlies jersey on his back, earning two All-NBA selections there and a Defensive Player of the Year award as well.
And now, he’ll play against his former team for the first time.
The Grizzlies face Gasol and the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. It’ll be the first game between the clubs since Gasol was traded to Toronto in February 2019 — a move that helped the Raptors win last season’s NBA championship.
Gasol said facing Memphis would be emotional.
“I got there when I was 16 years old. It was my first time out of Spain,” said Gasol, who still owns his Memphis home. “I started high school there as a teenager and left as a father of two kids. ... My ties to the city and my roots go pretty deep and my love for the people there, what they mean and the franchise, it’s forever.”
Gasol helped Memphis make the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons including the 2013 run to the Western Conference finals. He is the Grizzlies’ all-time leader for minutes played, field goals made, free throws made and attempted, rebounds, blocks and triple-doubles and is second in points — 49 behind Mike Conley.
The Raptors were supposed to have played back-to-back games against Memphis this season, going there March 28 and then playing host to the Grizzlies March 30. Those games, of course, were called off because of the season suspension caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously it’s a little bittersweet that we couldn’t play in the city of Memphis, to get that love and feel that Iove from the fans,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “But I’m sure he’ll be happy to see some familiar faces and a lot of the people that he spent a lot of time with over the years.”


WORKING WIZARDS
On Friday, the Washington Wizards were eliminated from playoff contention.
On Saturday, they practiced.
The Wizards knew they were playoff longshots even before coming to the NBA’s restart at Disney, especially since Bradley Beal didn’t make the trip because of injury and Davis Bertans opted not to play because of health concerns.
But these eight games — Washington is 0-5 at Disney with three games left — were considered learning opportunities for the team’s young players, and a chance to get some high-level work in before the offseason starts. And just because the playoff chances are now gone doesn’t mean Wizards coach Scott Brooks is changing his thinking on that front.
“It’s about getting better,” Brooks said. “You know, I love our group. We want to keep improving. And the record, I’m not happy with it but I’m happy with our effort after every game that we’ve been in.”
Brooks has told his team repeatedly at Disney that the losses go on his record, not theirs.
“You can’t waste the days, you have to keep working on each day and keep improving and it’s hard,” Brooks said. “It’s hard to go through, you know, five losses in a row. But in order to get where we need to get to, you’re going to have to deal with it. You’re going to have to be able to handle it. You’re going to have to be able to get better from it, and it also has to hurt, going through it. And that’s fine.”


BUCKS CLINCH
The road to the NBA championship will go through Milwaukee’s white uniforms.
The Bucks have secured the top overall seed in the NBA playoffs for the second consecutive year, the clincher coming when the Los Angeles Lakers lost to Indiana on Saturday.
Ordinarily, that would come with the right to host Game 1 and Game 7 of every series. This year, it just means that the Bucks will be called the home team in those games in each postseason round that they reach.