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La Liga resumes with specter of coronavirus devastation lingering in air

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A moment of silence was held for Spain’s 27,136 COVID-19 deaths as classical music composed by one of the victims played. Sevilla’s club anthem and noise were piped in, borrowed from the FIFA video game series. Digital fans were superimposed on the lower bowl of Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium. They looked like they’d been shredded by a plane engine before fluttering down on their assigned seats.

And we need to linger on the latter for a minute longer. Because a Norwegian company had promised The Athletic that there would be only “a small impact on the audiovisual perception of the viewer, who will actually sense that the stadium is full.”

It … did not feel that way. It felt more like toddler had glued scraps of white and red crepe paper all over the stands for a preschool art project.

Still, the effort was valiant and necessary. “Playing without fans is as sad as dancing with your sister,” Spain manager Luis Enrique had said, per The Guardian.

And at any rate, La Liga was back.

The Seville derby — fancifully dubbed El Gran Derbi, even though its relative significance is debatable — kicked off as the first major European soccer league played a nation hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic resumed on Thursday. Germany’s Bundesliga returned last month, but Germany’s aggressive and effective containment of the coronavirus kept its death toll under 9,000 among a population almost twice the size of Spain’s.

The other top leagues are on the verge of returning as well, with the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A picking up where they left off next week.

But it all remains precarious.

Sevilla beat Real Betis 2-0 in La Liga's return on Thursday after three months away due to the coronavirus pandemic. (REUTERS/Marcelo Del Pozo)
Sevilla beat Real Betis 2-0 in La Liga's return on Thursday after three months away due to the coronavirus pandemic. (REUTERS/Marcelo Del Pozo)

La Liga, like its rival circuits, is returning primarily to protect its own financial interests. By its own estimation, if the season is abandoned La Liga could lose a billion euros, which would have ruinous effects. And Spain hopes that soccer will create a model to return to business for the rest of the country to follow.

But that requires universal buy-in to the strict protocols required for it all to work, to keep playing safely without igniting another outbreak.

Barcelona right back Nélson Semedo was caught at a beach club a few days before La Liga’s resumption. He will be kept out of training with his team until he has proved negative in the next round of coronavirus testing. In late May, four Sevilla players were pictured at a small gathering of friends that was nevertheless larger than what the government allowed at that time, and none of them were socially distanced. They were found out when one of the players’ wives blithely posted the picture on Instagram.

It made you wince all the more when Sevilla’s players assembled in a big group hug after both of their goals against city rivals Betis on Thursday. Or when they defiantly ripped off their masks after the final whistle to hug some more.

Javier Tebas, who runs La Liga with an iron fist, initially backed down from the requirement that teams be quarantined collectively before games, the way they are in Germany, when the players’ association pushed back. But the players’ lockdown indiscretions could cause an about-face, he has said, if discipline isn’t maintained.

But for now, La Liga is opting to trust its players and allow a tantalizing title race to resume. First-place Barcelona and chasers Real Madrid remain just two points apart with 11 rounds of games to go. And third-placed Sevilla solidified its narrow lead over sensations Real Sociedad and Getafe and an underperforming Atletico Madrid.

Sevilla’s 2-0 home win was deserved in a game betraying all the rust you would expect from a layoff longer than the typical offseason. Sevilla came close three times in the first half, as Lucas Ocampos smacked a ball off the upright from an impossible angle and Jules Koundé and Luuk de Jong nodded promising headers wide.

But in the second half, de Jong earned a quick and fairly soft penalty at the hands – well, the arm – of Marc Bartra on a corner. Ocampos converted the spot kick impeccably.

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Six minutes later, Fernando maneuvered himself into a pocket of space on Ocampos’s splendid flick-on and nodded the ball past Joel Robles to put the game out of reach.

On Saturday, Barca will visit Mallorca. Sunday, Real Madrid hosts Eibar in its reserve stadium, taking advantage of the absence of fans to renovate its hulking Santiago Bernabeu. And then the title race and one of the world’s most beloved leagues will truly be back on.

For now.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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