30 April 2020

Football on the front line for a safe return to play


The world of sport is trying to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Italian Minister of Sport Vincenzo Spadafora has asked all the Italian sports federations to set out the measures they intend to apply in light of a resumption of activity.

The Italian volleyball and basketball federations announced the definitive cancellation of all championships for each competition and division: this important decision involves significant consequences for all athletes, their staff supporters, as well as the clubs who will face financial losses.

On the other hand, football is struggling to find a way to restart. A realistic outcome – especially from the health point of view – does not include crowds in stadiums watching a football match. The football championship had its last game on 9 March before being stopped by the authorities. These are exceptional circumstances given that not even the spread of cholera in 1973 forced the authorities to suspend matches. We actually have to go back to 1915, when Italy entered the First World War, to find a similar situation.

FIGC protocol

After a few weeks of suspension, the Italian football federation FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio) has brought together the Federal Medical Commission with infectious diseases experts, to analyse and define a resumption guarantee protocol.

Gabriele Gravina, president of FIGC, has highlighted that the purpose of the Federation is to protect the health of athletes, referees and staff members. The federal president stressed that football has extraordinary needs due to the economic benefit it generates and to its large media exposure. This includes responsibilities towards the clubs. The exact definition of the dangers is important in order to identify priorities and to limit potential risks.

After a series of videoconference meetings, the commission produced a health guarantee protocol for the resumption of training. This aims as a second step to restart the professional championships. The protocol provides a series of prescriptions and recommendations to identify and conserve a team group.

The suggested anit COVID measures – preventing screenings

Players, as well as technical staff, doctors, physiotherapists, warehouse workers and anyone who has to work closely with the players form a team group. COVID-19 tests must show negative results for all of them.

Each club, indeed, has to provide an initial screening 72-96 hours before the first day of training for the whole team group. The screening includes: (i) an accurate anamnesis covering travel, contacts with COVID-19 positive people, any nonspecific symptoms, as well as (ii) a clinical visit, body temperature measurement and (iii) the so-called ‘rapid’ RT-PCR swab (repeated a second time 24 hours apart – this second test is not necessary with regard to those who have recovered from the virus) and (iv) a serological swab (indicated as most reliable by the Technical and Scientific Committee).

Following the checks, if a member of the team group tests positive, he would be immediately suspended and placed under clinical surveillance and therapy.

The health personnel involved in this preliminary assessment and in the clinical surveillance of the team group shall also be provided with protective masks, as well as other personal protective equipment (gloves, goggles, etc.), compliant with provisions dictated by the health authorities.

Suggested measures at the traning site

Clubs must ensure daily cleaning, sanitization and ventilation of premises (according to the provisions of Circular no. 5443/22 February 2020 Minister of Health), with particular regard to changing rooms, gyms and related machinery, and periodic sanitization and daily cleaning of workstations and common areas, cafeteria and keyboards of the vending machines for drinks/snacks.

In the changing rooms, each player area has to be 2 meters apart. If this is not possible, entry should be staggered to allow proper distances. Furthermore, a shower environment could theoretically favour the diffusion of the virus due to the water vapour, so it is preferable for the players to shower in a guesthouse or a hotel room.

As a rule, no person outside the team group is entitled to access the training site. In case of proven necessity, the training site can be accessed through a filter area, with body temperature measurement, wearing masks and gloves, keeping social distancing and attending for only a limited time.

Clubs are also required to ensure that people from abroad or from areas with outbreaks of infection, or who have had close contacts with an infective positive person within 14 days prior, have observed a self-quarantine period with active surveillance before accessing the training site (and preventive screening).

Suggested measures at the training sessions

Players’ training in the resumption phase should be limited to athletic and technical individual sessions. It is preferable to organize the sessions outdoors by placing the players at a distance of at least 2 meters from each other and in small groups. The same has to be done for gym sessions, with the proper positioning of the machines, gym equipment and of the players themselves. As the weeks go by, training will be gradually improved with the insertion of specific group simulations of the game, with respect to interpersonal distances.

As for massages and physiotherapy, the sessions will have to be scheduled to ensure distances of at least 2 meters between the stations avoiding gatherings waiting for treatments. During the individual sessions, it is recommended that health workers wear masks (and also players), gloves and goggles.

All internal events are suspended and non-essential activities, such as administrative ones, will have to be postponed or carried out via remote means, while essential ones must be planned respecting social distancing (at least 2 meters), otherwise the use of masks should be imposed. Finally, for meetings with external parties (such as press conferences), the use of videoconferencing platforms is preferable.

Waiting for the goverment approval

FIGC has provided the protocol to the Italian Minister of Sport and to the Minister of Health Roberto Speranza, for its approval. On 22 April, the key representatives of Italian football held a videoconference with Minister Spadafora, who examined the protocol and showed his appreciation. Nevertheless, he did not provide any authorization and took his time to evaluate the situation directly with Minister Speranza. Meanwhile, on 26 April, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that training would probably start again on 18 May.

An eye on Germany

Germany has already given the green light for players’ training and the resumption date for the championship is now under discussion by the 36 Bundesliga and Zweite Bundesliga clubs (respectively first and second German professional leagues). In the meantime, local media have published the guidelines that have been suggested for the future matches: 41 pages that propose a maximum of 300 people between the field and the stands (but divided into three areas of 100 people each), separate bench seats, personal bottles, no team photos, no children entering the field, strict hygiene measures and distances.

Measurement of the team’s temperatures is required before each training session and sports shoes and clothing have to be washed directly by the players or put in washing machine without involving the warehousemen. Plans and instructions have also been prepared in case of positive tests: the infected person should enter immediate isolation and anyone who came into contact with him would immediately be submitted for testing. Furthermore, 18 points also explain the behaviour to be observed in hotels: isolated team, only club staff can serve food on the table or enter the rooms, temperature must be of 21 degrees and 50-60% humidity, it is prohibited to enter the wellness or fitness area and also to touch the elevators keys, as well as any doors or handrails. Tests on players and staff are promised every three days.

The rest of Europe The rest of Europe – latest updates

If on one side Germany seems to be almost ready for the resumption of football matches, in England there is no protocol for the Premier League so far and the authorities are still discussing a possible date, with no indications yet of the measures that would be taken.

In Spain local media published the protocol suggested by La Liga (first professional league) in order to restart training and a gradual return to play, although the initial rumours claim that health authorities are reluctant to arrange for preliminary testing for all players.

In France, the Prime Minister has announced that the big sporting affairs cannot occur before September, therefore the 2019/20 professional football season cannot return.

The Netherlands is facing the toughest situation: after the Government imposed a cessation of all sporting events until next September, the Dutch football federation declared the cancellation of the Eredivisie (first professional league) championship.

UEFA position

Notwithstanding, the expectations of players and supporters across Europe remain high since UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) has encouraged the national federations to complete the championships – when allowed by the health situation – at the latest by August, in order to provide the names of the qualified clubs for the next European cups within the original format. In the event that the national championships are definitively suspended – as in the Dutch case – the list of qualified teams must be drawn up on the basis of the sporting merits demonstrated on the field in the current season.

At the moment, there is no certainty around the future of sport in Italy and Europe. With hope of a return to normality as soon as possible, football finds itself on the front line, working on a gradual and safe resumption for athletes and supporters.

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