I have been present at two football matches played behind closed doors: one between West Ham and Castilla in the Cup Winners' Cup and another between Real Madrid's Quinta del Buitre side and Diego Maradona's Napoli. The effect was surreal, an embarrassing silence broken only by the shouts of the players and the sound of the ball being struck, a sound which informed the listener if the connection was a good one or not. All of which was amplified by the echo. “An empty stadium is a body without organs,” wrote Mario Benedetti at the time and I was reminded of that phrase twice when witnessing the ghostly quality of those two games. And that is the atmosphere that can be expected during tonight's game between Valencia and Atalanta at Mestalla, and for the Sevilla-Roma and Barcelona-Napoli return legs. LaLiga has also announced two weeks of behind-closed doors fixtures while in Italy the situation has become so serious that Serie A has suspended the championship entirely for the time being.
Valencia captain Dani Parejo has complained about the decision for their Champions League game against Atalanta, as have Valencia fans. The coronavirus made an early appearance in the coastal city but the contagion did not spread as it has elsewhere. The issue is that the visitors are from Italy; around 2,500 Atalanta fans have bought tickets for the game and around 1,000 foolhardy supporters are intent on making the journey. Some are already here. How they can be prevented from entering the stadium? One suggestion was to only grant access to season-ticket holders with Spanish ID cards. Then there would be no way of Atalanta fans attending the game, but this idea has been shelved. Parejo asked why the same people who are thronging the main square in Valencia in their thousands every day to celebrate the Fallas festival in the city cannot go to Mestalla for the game. It is a question to which there is no answer.
It is possible that this crisis will see the cancellation of several national events, like the Seville fair, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Madrid's San Isidro festival and who knows how many others, but at the moment it falls to football to do what it is told. The sport has been selected as the first line of defence against the coronavirus (as of Wednesday schools in Madrid, Vitoria and Labastida will follow suit) and the only option is to comply with the directive. The fear is not that we are all going to die, this is not a medieval plague. The concern is that hospitals will be stretched to breaking point. Valencia are the first to make the sacrifice. Let us hope that they are compensated with a comeback that we can all enjoy on television.