Jonathan Van-Tam made no attempt to sugarcoat it. Amid soccer’s coronavirus hiatus, as sports leagues around the world tried to figure out a way to return to the field as a pandemic raged, Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer of Britain, had been invited to join a Zoom call with the captains of the Premier League’s 20 clubs.
Van-Tam was there to explain the measures that would be needed to make it possible for soccer to return. He reeled through the many sacrifices players would have to make. It would not be easy, he told the captains: They and their teammates would be subjected to more oversight than anyone except British special forces troops on high-alert status.
In those long, bleak days of spring, as soccer authorities tried to conjure a road map back to the field, the idea that the overwhelming majority of domestic leagues in Europe might be able to finish their seasons — and that a new European champion might be crowned — seemed a distant, fanciful one. The risk appeared too great. Too much could go wrong.
That it did is not only testament to the progress their countries made against the virus; to the detailed, forensic planning of the leagues and federations; and to the spirit of “unity,” as the Serie A president, Paolo Dal Pino, put it, that the continent’s clubs managed to foster in an extremely difficult situation. But none of it could have happened without the willingness of thousands of players to observe some of the toughest controls imposed on any individuals in any industry.
The Bundesliga — the first major sports league to return — blazed the trail. Before resuming play in May, it issued each of its players a handbook containing precise instructions on “private hygiene,” guidance that in some cases went above and beyond the advice issued by the government to the public.
The rules were as stringent, and comprehensive, as possible, and governed almost every aspect of how players lived. Hand towels were to be used once only, and to be washed at 140 degrees Fahrenheit as soon as they were damp. Rooms were to be kept well ventilated. Toothbrushes were to be cleaned with hot, soapy water.
Some bordered on the intimate: Players were ordered to ensure they took vitamins, drank plenty of water and kept their airways warm. A few took a hard line: Any player who suspected his bubble might have been breached by a person infected with the coronavirus was told that he might, depending on the view of his club, need to change residence.
The rules applied not only to the players, but to their families, too: no visitors, no public transportation, no conversations with neighbors. No chances were to be taken.
The authorities elsewhere took much the same approach, adopting what Victor Manuel Ortega, a vice president at the Spanish league, called “a cascade of strictness.” In each country, the rules emphasized the importance of players taking individual responsibility.
“La Liga was very demanding on the clubs, and the clubs were in turn very demanding on the players,” Ortega said. “So the players saw how demanding the clubs were with them, and the clubs saw how demanding the league was with them. That is what was important here.”
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Everyone involved knew that a single outbreak could not only derail months of planning and undermine the sport’s image, but also potentially cost lives. There were, after all, plenty of voices in those early weeks calling on soccer not to even think about returning until the pandemic had abated.
Ortega, who was charged with overseeing the return of Spanish soccer, remembered the fear well: the nerves when he would wake every morning waiting for the newest batch of test results, and then the sense of relief that would wash over him — at least for 24 hours.
The moment Ortega was dreading never arrived. The same was true elsewhere. Most leagues reported only a few dozen positive tests, at most, as they finished their schedules. Aside from Dynamo Dresden, a German second division team that reported an outbreak immediately before the return of the Bundesliga, no team had to go into quarantine or see a string of matches postponed or rescheduled.
Most found that players followed the rules to the letter, doing little more than cloister in their homes — except for training sessions and games — during the two months it took to finish the season.
“We expected them outside of the training grounds to follow the government advice in relation to social distancing at the time, in relation to hygiene, in relation to where they would visit,” Richard Garlick, the Premier League’s director of football, said. “They were doing that with the mind-set of, ‘We want to get restarted, we have got these protocols in place.’ They did all the right things.”
There were occasional “aberrations,” as Garlick called them: a handful of Premier League players caught holding lockdown parties, or visiting friends, or inviting acquaintances to their homes. In Germany, the coach of Augsburg, Heiko Herrlich, missed his team’s restart after he broke quarantine to buy toothpaste. In Spain, La Liga officials scoured social media for potential violations after some Sevilla players were pictured enjoying a barbecue together.
“We quickly contacted the clubs and reminded them very strongly what responsibility they had,” Ortega said.
The Premier League posted a permanent delegate at each club’s training facility to ensure compliance and to prevent any team from bending the rules to gain any advantage over its opponents at a time when the type of training that was permitted was governed by social distancing. “It was just making sure there was a level playing field and no one was secretly doing anything,” Garlick said. “And they weren’t, because they realized the risks.”
Like his colleagues across Europe, though, Garlick knows that a greater challenge lies ahead. As the seasons finished in each country, players were allowed out of their bubbles. The strict protocols that had governed their lives since March were loosened, and social media feeds have since filled with images of players on beaches, at parties, reunited with their extended families.
That freedom brings with it, of course, an increased risk of exposure. There have been a number of positive tests in Spain as teams not involved in European competition return to preseason training. Sides contesting the early rounds of the forthcoming Champions League and Europa League have seen games canceled because of outbreaks.
In France — the only one of Europe’s major leagues to cancel its season, and the first to return to action in the new one — the curtain-raiser, a game between Marseille and St. Étienne, was postponed after the former confirmed that four players had tested positive.
“When people come back from vacation there will be a number of people who come back with coronavirus,” Ortega, of La Liga, said. “Already in Spain we are seeing more positives with the increased number of tests, but it will be manageable.”
As players return, they are finding that the strict controls that governed their lives in the summer remain in place, even if their communities are slowly, gingerly trying to find ways to reopen. Ortega considers the strict rules no great burden on players: it is, instead, just part of the job. “They have to sacrifice some things which really, really aren’t that great,” he said.
But like Garlick in the Premier League, he is aware that expecting players to adhere to the most stringent measures imaginable for the course of a few weeks is one thing. Hoping they will be able to maintain that discipline over the course of a season is quite another. “I think it’s harder in some ways now,” Garlick said.
For months, all European soccer focused on was not ending its season with a question mark, an asterisk. It has, to the credit of both its authorities and its participants, succeeded. What comes next, though, may well be more difficult. Finishing in the middle of a pandemic was one thing. Now, with the virus an ever-present threat, Europe’s leagues have to find a way to start again.