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European leagues gradually return to action in a very cautious way

China Daily | Updated: 2020-06-02 09:22
Cardboard cutouts of Borussia Moenchengladbach fans occupy seats in the stands during Sunday's Bundesliga match against Union Berlin at Gladbach's Borussia Park. REUTERS

Surreal scenes and eerie silences as European leagues gradually return to action

In the shadows of Germany's Bundesliga, soccer is gradually restarting in countries across Europe, in almost all cases behind closed doors, with the exception of Hungary where supporters have been allowed to return.

From plastic fans in Poland, to virtual fans in Denmark, drive-in spectators in the Czech Republic and a title coronation in Serbia, AFP takes a look at a weekend of soccer in the time of the novel coronavirus.

'Respect the rules'

Forgotten sounds resonated in grounds across Hungary last weekend as songs, the beating of drums and the sense of excitement which spreads throughout the crowd when the ball nears the goal all returned for the first time since March.

After two months without spectators, sports venues reopened their doors to the public this weekend in Hungary, the first country to welcome supporters back to the stands, on the condition that every other row is left empty and only one in four seats is occupied.

Apart from in Budapest where Hungary's biggest club Ferencvaros has a large fan base, typical crowds are small with a nationwide average last season of around 3,000.

"We will respect the rules because there could be games behind closed doors again if we mess up," said Richard Kovacs, 36, one of the 2,255 fans at Diosgyor's match against Mezokovesd in the northeastern city of Miskolc on Saturday.

"All that worries us is knowing if we're going to win or lose, not the epidemic," said Gabor Lengyel, 41, suggesting that soccer, and by extension life for some, is approaching a return to normal.

Plastic fantastic

Poland will follow Hungary's lead with fans able to attend matches from June 19, although stadiums will be limited to a quarter of capacity.

In the meantime, the league restarted on Friday behind closed doors with noisy, hardcore Polish fans forced to adapt.

Supporters of Pogon Szczecin arranged a guard of honor, holding aloft flares every 10 meters on the road leading to the stadium.

Lechia Gdansk relied on some private support on Sunday against Arka Gdynia, with photos of some 200 fans printed onto plastic backgrounds and placed in the stands.

The photos cost 75 zlotys ($19) and will eventually be returned to fans taking part in the initiative once signed by their favorite player.

Drive-in dedication

The second weekend of the Czech league since the season's resumption saw defending champion and leader Slavia Plague thrash Jablonec 5-0 at an empty Eden Arena on Saturday.

However, it wasn't totally deserted as the club placed 1,000 plastic photos of players in the stands while giving fans the chance to do likewise for roughly 500 koruna ($20), half of which will go to Slavia's youth teams. Around 500 'fans' made it for kickoff.

To liven up the eerie atmosphere, Sparta Prague and Viktoria Plzen are pumping out team songs during their games. For Wednesday's meeting between the two sides, they set up drive-in cinemas in both Prague and Plzen.

"We weren't able to go to the stadium because of the situation. I saw about this opportunity on social media so my friend and I bought tickets and came. It's very different, we're not really screaming and we miss the stadium, it's impossible to replace," Sparta fan Petr Svoboda, who watched the 2-1 loss to Plzen, said.

Red Star reigns

Despite their reputation and the clinching of a title-the first in Europe since soccer's return-typically boisterous Serbian supporters remained calm as the league resumed on Friday behind closed doors.

Rad Belgrade hosted city rival Red Star in the biggest match, where a 5-0 victory for the visitor secured it a 31st top-flight title.

Anyone expecting a sea of supporters flocking to the streets to celebrate was disappointed. Only a hundred or so hardcore fans gathered outside Red Star's ground to toast the newly crowned champion while mobbing the club's coach, former Inter Milan midfielder Dejan Stankovic, outside Stadion Rajko Miti c, aka the Marakana.

Zooming in

After a near-three-month hiatus, the Danish league returned last Thursday as AGF took on Randers in Aarhus in a 1-1 draw behind closed doors.

On the eve of the match, the Aarhus club had invited eager fans to stick banners, flags and other cardboard cutouts in the stands, far from the usual ambience expected for a clash between two Jutland rivals.

Aarhus supporter Liva Hansen, 28, followed the match on TV and via videoconferencing platform Zoom along with a group of friends.

All five were part of a virtual audience of 30,000 people, whose images were beamed onto giant screens around the pitch.

"No doubt, that helped," Aarhus coach David Nielsen told Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet. "It created a little alternative atmosphere, specific to 2020."

"It's a good solution but obviously I'd have preferred to be in the stands," said Hansen. "It was nice to see the other fans and their reactions, during the good moments but also during the less good!"

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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