by Gabriel RUBIO GIRON / Thomas ALLNUTT
La Liga’s proposed restart next month has left fans juggling the excitement of football’s return and the disappointment it will resume without them.
More than two months after the coronavirus pandemic halted the season in Spain, players have begun training in small groups as they aim to be as ready as possible for the planned reboot on June 12.
Yet goals, saves and tackles will all be greeted by silence or at best, artificial cheers approved by authorities to be pumped out of a sound system.
Even for Sevilla against Real Betis, the usually-heart thumping Andalusian derby that encapsulates the importance of supporters more than any other Spanish fixture, the atmosphere will be non-existent on the first weekend back.
But for clubs, there is a financial necessity given La Liga president Javier Tebas has estimated cancelling the season could cost them 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion).
“People need their dose of football,” Adolfo Barbero, a commentator on Movistar, Spain’s primary football broadcaster, told AFP.
“There is that want for fans to go to matches but for many now, the priority is to play. They want to see 22 guys, a ball and a green pitch, the rest will be for afterwards.”
For fans, there is an acceptance that the sport returning in muted form is better than it not coming back at all.
“We understand that football without fans is not the football we want,” says Jose Manuel Mateo, president of Aficiones Unidas, an association of fans from different clubs.
“But given the exceptional nature of the situation, we have no choice but to accept it.”
“I don’t think football can afford just to wait or stand still until there is a vaccine, which guarantees safety,” Mateo added.
According to La Liga, playing without fans is not without cost too as clubs surrender considerable sums in matchday revenue.
But finishing the remaining 11 rounds of the season and completing European competitions would limit losses to around 303 million euros, a third of the figure contemplated for cancellation.
– ‘Without fans it’s not football’ –
Resumption allows players to return to work and staff too, many of whom have had their wages cut in recent weeks.
“Many families also depend on football for income, it’s not only the players,” Mateo said.
Playing the last eleven days of the league “behind closed doors is a way to save the season,” admits Gerardo Tocino, president of the Real Madrid fans’ club, La Gran Familia.
“Those of us who really feel the colours of a club, what we seek is the best for the team, even if that means seeing your players through a screen.”
But for others, sacrificing supporters was a solution found too easily and the worry is that over the coming weeks and months, the game will find ways to adapt.
Instead of being missed, fans could feel less needed than ever.
“Without fans in the stands it’s not football, it’s reality TV or televised training, but not football,” says Emilio Abejon, secretary general of the Federation of Spanish Soccer Shareholders and Partners (FASFE).
“The country is allowing tourism to stop, which is the biggest business in Spain, but not football.”
Abejon, a fan of Atletico Madrid, points out that a significant part of the 1.3 per cent contribution football makes to Spain’s GDP is “the business around football like bars, restaurants, shops”, all of which will remain closed.
“If football cannot return under reasonable conditions, which we believe to be with people in the stands, it should not return at all,” said Abejon.
Joseba Combarro, president of the Eskozia La Brava, the most important supporters’ club in Eibar, says the only option should have been cancellation.
“We understand we cannot go to the stadium due to the risk of infection,” said Combarro. “But the players share the same risk as the fans, the risk is for everyone. The league should be suspended.”
© Agence France-Presse