Serie A's suspension was overdue, and playing soccer as coronavirus spreads might soon be irresponsible

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About half an hour into Sassuolo’s home game against Brescia on Monday, already played behind closed doors as per the last edict, the dreaded word finally came down. Serie A would be shutting down indefinitely, until April 3 at least.

So came the order from the Italian Olympic Committee, later confirmed by Italy’s prime minister. All sports have been suspended, in fact, as the entire nation is now locked down.

Italy is Europe’s hardest-hit country by the coronavirus, with more than 7,000 confirmed cases and 300 deaths, and the disease has concentrated in the north, which also happens to be the hub of the country’s soccer league.

If the measure felt drastic, it also was slow in coming.

On Sunday, the slate of league games to be played that afternoon was up in the air right up until kickoff, with players sent back into the locker room after warmups in one match. Eventually, it was decided every game would be played behind closed doors. The league would carry on, after several rounds of games had already been suspended, throwing the remaining schedule into chaos with Euro 2020 looming right after the season.

Yet the players’ association had, through its president, urged that the league be stopped before that, a request that was ultimately ignored. The players’ argument was that if bodily contact was supposed to be avoided, a contact sport like soccer seemed a bad idea. Which means that for at least another round of action, the players were exposed to one another, including those living in the most badly affected regions. The fans were protected from each other, sure, but the players were not.

Serie A has been suspended as part of Italy's countrywide shutdown due to the coronavirus — and it should have happened sooner. (REUTERS/Massimo Pinca)
Serie A has been suspended as part of Italy's countrywide shutdown due to the coronavirus — and it should have happened sooner. (REUTERS/Massimo Pinca)

Meanwhile, it isn’t yet clear what will happen to Italy’s teams still playing in European competition — Atalanta, Juventus and Napoli are active in the Champions League, while Inter Milan and AS Roma remain alive in the Europa League — because the Olympic Committee has no jurisdiction. Two of them are scheduled to play behind closed doors this week in Spain. Will, for instance, that national lockdown order also apply to soccer teams?

In spite of Paris Saint-Germain’s efforts to spray down its Parc des Princes stadium, the Parisian police decided that PSG’s home game with Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday would take place without fans regardless – days after PSG’s away game at Strasbourg in Ligue 1 was postponed altogether because of the outbreak there. For the next month, no games in France’s two professional tiers will be allowing more than 1,000 fans in attendance.

While it was entirely predictable that the pandemic would disrupt soccer, it’s also possible that its effects will be more severe than we could have fathomed.

With the disease spreading to other European countries, there comes a point where playing soccer at all grows irresponsible. And at that point, a choice might have to be made between finishing the domestic seasons or delaying Euro 2020 for a year — or canceling it outright, although that doesn’t seem to ever be a consideration for UEFA.

What form any of this will take is a matter of speculation. Serie A might opt to play out the remainder of the season whenever the virus abates, extending the competition into late May or even June and July. That could clash with the Euro, if it is played, and mean some players might have to choose between their club and national teams, if their employers even allow them that kind of agency. This seems unlikely.

More probable is that the games will be crammed in before the official ending of the club season, increasing the wear on players for the sake of completing the full slate of games. Or perhaps those seasons are never actually completed, with winners pronounced off the most recent standings as an inelegant but practical solution. (Should such a thing happen in England, where the virus isn’t as bad as on the mainland, you’d have to feel for Liverpool, finally winning its first league title in 30 years, only for it to be affixed with an asterisk.)

The first disruption of Serie A since World War II serves as a powerful illustration of the scope of this crisis, and its lack of precedent in our modern sporting landscape. Previous pandemics were largely contained to narrow regions, after all.

And therefore the only reliable prediction is that the sports, while a relative afterthought in the broader scheme of things, will keep being affected in fresh and heretofore unimaginable ways.

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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