These last minutes, just before kickoff, have been mapped with almost military precision. At 20:50 local time, a disinfected Champions League match ball will be placed on a ceremonial pedestal. At 20:53, the players leave their locker rooms. The team enters the field, separately, no more than two and a half minutes later.
At 20:57, as the tribes of the Champions League anthem flip out of the stadium’s speakers, players will face the stands – all but empty – while maintaining social distance: one meter between each player. Team photos are at 20:57 and 50 seconds, but the photojournalists do not have to take them long: the coin toss is at 20:58.
Instead of providing a slow-burning climax to the European season, with the final three rounds of games taking place over almost two months and taking place across the continent, the Champions League, the most coveted prize in club football, will be decided in just 10 days and in a city: Lisbon.
If, that is, coronavirus allows it. A team is already facing a possible outbreak: Atlético Madrid reported on Sunday that two members of its traveling party had tested positive.
According to the rules, the two players – Angel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko – were isolated from the rest of the team, and on Monday Atlético announced that they would return to training and continue preparations for a Thursday quarterfinal against RB Leipzig. It is also allowed; even in the middle of a locker room outburst, a team can continue to play as long as the club can field 11 starters and two reserves that test negative.
The whole elimination round is in fact a sudden break from history, and no UEFA – the organizer of the competition and the governing body of European football – is eager to repeat. Nor is it as pure a Champions League as anyone could have hoped, as there are big differences in the preparations for the eight teams that have done so. Paris St.-Germain, who play the opening match against Italy’s Atalanta on Wednesday, have only played two competitive matches since March. Bayern Munich had a month between the German Cup final and its meeting with Chelsea on Saturday, a dismissal that Oliver Kahn, the club’s future CEO, worries could be a disadvantage.
The teams from England, Italy and Spain can meanwhile complain about lack of rest. The Serie A season did not end until the first weekend in August, after a strenuous schedule of 10 matches in a little more than six weeks. The promotion in the Premier League ended in the last week of July.
And then, of course, there are the countless demands placed on the team to ensure that the tournament can play in the end. “I have a feeling that whichever team handles all these fears and responsibilities best has a great chance of winning,” Kahn said.
These requirements concern almost all aspects of each team’s preparation. Last week, representatives of all 12 clubs still involved in the competition went to that stage in an online conversation with UEFA, the governing body of European football, to review what the tournament would look like.
They were presented with three sets of slides, amounting to more than 130 pages – and were sent the 31-page “Return To Play” protocol that governs almost every aspect of their stay in Portugal.
In addition to informing where each team will stay and train in the city, the slides informed that they would receive 210 bottles of water, as well as 90 bottles of Gatorade, every day at their designated training facility; that they can request that up to 50 kg of ice be made available during training sessions and games; and that they must deliver not only photos but the dimensions of their team buses, if they plan to provide their own.
They were presented with maps of the stadiums that they will use, with information about, exactly, their players will get to warm up. So-called “fast feet” exercises must take place from the playing surface, and the area in front of each target mouth must not be touched. Players are not allowed to make hot falls on the pitch at all, to protect the grass as much as possible for other matches.
They went through the test schedule for each of their players – one before starting for Lisbon, one immediately upon arrival, one day before each game. The results will be returned to them no later than six hours before kickoff – to ensure that the competition does not see an outbreak of the type that has disrupted several major sports in the United States.
UEFA has a procedure in place if a team registers a positive test: Its play will continue, with the player (or players) not involved. Betting is suspended only if a team cannot name 13 custom players. In that situation, the team that can not continue loses. The result will be recorded as a 3-0 defeat. UEFA, the meeting clarified, has a procedure for almost anything.
Sports and the virus
Updated August 10, 2020
Here’s what happens when the world of sports slowly re-emerges:
- NBA teams were awarded their Disney World hotels based on position. It has left the weaker teams in the less desirable Yacht Club Resort and feels jealous when they fight for a playoff spot.
- The pandemic has left young female golfers, who have fewer betting options than men, distorted to find tournaments.
- At the University of Connecticut, the decision was made to suspend football after players said, “Coaches, there is no way we can play a season.”
There is a good reason for that. The organization has put too much work into not competing in the competition, for Europe to be just a champion. It has not only been a monumental effort in terms of planning, but also in terms of politics.
The day after Atlético Madrid eliminated Liverpool, last year’s winner, in March, the idea seemed to be ready for the Champions League. The coronavirus pandemic had stopped football across Europe, and the continent’s show competition was frozen halfway through its round of 16.
As the hiatus dragged on and leagues tried to choose a path back to action, the Champions League seemed, if anything, in even greater danger. UEFA had announced its commitment to play the competition – the financial consequences of not doing so were too much to think about – but the way forward was anything but clear.
In May, UEFA had realized that there was only one available conclusion. The tournament had to be packed within a maximum of three weeks. Unlike the domestic competitions that returned, it was necessary to correct teams from several countries, with different rules to contain the virus. It must be a knockout competition, a series of one-and-done games played in a single country, more akin to the final stages of a World Cup.
Turkey was convinced that it could host such a tournament: after all, the Champions League final had been planned for Istanbul before the pandemic struck. However, UEFA was skeptical. Turkey was considered too risky. Germany, Spain, Hungary and Portugal volunteered to take their place, and Turkey agreed to step aside and promised next year’s final instead.
At the same time, Portuguese officials made their move. Fernando Gomes and Tiago Craveiro, the president and CEO of the country’s football association, had developed a close relationship with UEFA’s leadership. They emphasized to them that Portugal on that point had not been hit as hard as other nations, and that Lisbon had experience of hosting major events. The pitch worked.
With a format and a place, UEFA must now take care of the organization. Under normal circumstances, it can take months. It only had a few weeks. A host agreement, including tax breaks, hammered out with the Portuguese government and a detailed health protocol was created. UEFA announced that the games would take place without fans.
To avoid complaints about favoritism and small arguments among the teams, hotels were allocated places in the competition, which means that each team would stay and train would be as much luck to the draw as the opponents it would face.
Then it was a question of insuring UEFA’s broadcasting partner. Some had already secured refunds and discounts from the national leagues, but UEFA managed to reach an agreement. Millions of dollars will have to be returned, but how much depends on the success of this month’s tournament. The last number will determine the total prize money that the team will receive.
In July, however, all work suddenly seemed threatened. Portugal had an alarming peak in coronavirus cases targeting Lisbon. The country’s authorities imposed a curfew in the city, and some began to question whether Portugal would host the event at all.
UEFA’s leadership, led by its President Alexander Ceferin, held talks with senior Portuguese officials, including Prime Minister Antonio Costa. The football officials gave a detailed presentation, with mountains of statistics and graphics, which, they said, showed Portugal’s test record and handling the virus meant there was little threat to the tournament.
The last obstacle was cleared, UEFA could press. On August 4, it presented the final version of what its emergency Champions League would look like for the clubs. The focus was on all the sudden norms of this new world: face masks and hand cleansing and social distancing.
It will only be a nod to the past. At 20:50, exactly 10 minutes before the start of each match, a match ball is placed on its pedestal. On the curved surface of the ball, just below a picture of the Champions League trophy, two words will serve as a reminder that this is not how it was meant to be. “Istanbul 2020,” it will read.