In Italy, Lazio owner wants to resume training; his critics accuse him of putting sport above health

If it was up to Claudio Lotito, Lazio would be back in training already.

Italy has been in a state of national lockdown since March 9, as it works to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has cost more than 21,000 lives in the country so far. But the president of the club that sits second in Serie A, its top domestic soccer league, believes it is past time that professional athletes should be allowed to return to their jobs.

“I support respecting the rules of the state,” Lotito stressed in an interview with his team’s official radio station, Lazio Style, on April 7. “[But] I do not understand what motives there could be for not resuming training sessions. There is no medical-scientific basis for preventing a soccer player from going about their activities. With appropriate means of prevention in place, the conditions are right for them to go about their work in safety. Training is an act of work, not recreation.”

Lotito has stronger incentives than most to see soccer resume.

Lazio, who have won Serie A only twice in their 120-year history, were unbeaten in 21 games when play was suspended. They trail the league leaders, Juventus, by a single point. His proposal was only for a resumption of training sessions, not yet competitive games, but opponents have accused him of putting sporting ambitions ahead of the public’s health. No other Serie A club owner has publicly supported his position, while several have spoken against it. Some have argued for the 2019-20 season to be abandoned and declared void.

Yet Lotito might not be so far away from getting what he wants. Italian soccer’s governing bodies are actively preparing for the possibility that training could resume early next month, with the head of the federation’s medical committee Paolo Zeppilli detailing guidelines that would see returning players divided into three groups: those who have never knowingly been infected, those who have tested positive but only with light symptoms, and those who have been sick. Anyone in the latter group would need to undergo a pulmonary CT scan and additional cardiological tests before being allowed to play.

The president of the sport’s national federation, Giuseppe Gravina, insisted this week that the 2019-20 season would be brought to a conclusion — however long it took.

Italy’s lockdown, which has closed all non-essential businesses, banned public gatherings and confined people to their homes, is scheduled to expire on May 4. In reality, that date is a moving target. The government has been extending the lockdown a few weeks at a time, trying to stay flexible in their response to the crisis.

The terms were loosened slightly on Tuesday, allowing bookshops and children’s clothing stores to open. Prime minister Giuseppe Conte has expressed optimism that more may be possible soon, but stressed he will act in line with scientific guidance. There are signs that lockdown is helping to contain the spread of the coronavirus, with the daily rate of deaths and new infections trending downwards, but 602 people still lost their lives to the virus in Italy on Tuesday.

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Soccer is hardly an essential business, of course. Lotito’s case is simply that top-level clubs can offer their employees a safer workplace than most. “Everything would take place under a regime of constant checks,” he said, as he laid out his vision for how training could resume. “There would be preventative screening measures: blood tests and swabs that would allow players to enter into a sporting centre that has been highly sanitised, like [Lazio’s training facility in] Formello. They could avoid any type of contact or contagion.”

The practicality of these claims deserves scrutiny. Italy has been proactive in coronavirus testing, conducting more than three times as many tests, per unit of population, as European neighbours France and the United Kingdom. Yet shortages of reliable test kits have been reported globally and further evidence is required to prove that soccer clubs could conduct their own monitoring in-house, safely and without taking resources away from essential workforces or the emergency services.

At least one of the government’s leading medical advisors is skeptical. Giovanni Rezza, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Italian National Institute of Health, expressed his doubts during a news conference for the Department of Civil Protection on Monday.

“Soccer is a contact sport,” he said, “so it entails risks of transmission. I hear people talking about checks that can be carried out umpteen times, players with tests every day, honestly to me it seems like a bit of a stretched hypothesis… If I had to give my specialist opinion, I would not be in favour. Mine is a personal opinion but I think that the technical-scientific committee [a body of experts formed to advise the Civil Protection] would share this position. Then, politics will decide.”

His remarks drew a swift rebuke from Lazio. Rezza had accompanied his assessment with an ill-advised quip about being a supporter of Roma — the Biancocelesti‘s great rivals, who have endured a less positive campaign — and hence happy to see the whole thing tossed out.

“Scientists should be scientists and not fans,” shot back Lazio’s head of communications, Arturo Diaconale. “It would be really much better if, instead of feeding footballing controversies, they dedicated every energy to researching a cure or a vaccine.”

Not all of Rezza’s peers share his outlook. Some of the same scientists advising the government have also been involved in the national soccer federation’s own medical commission, which is working to develop guidelines for how the sport could resume.

A full protocol has not yet been completed but some ground rules were established during its most recent convening, via video conference, on Wednesday. The commission foresees teams only being able to train initially in fully closed training camps, with players, coaches and all other necessary club staff — from physios to handymen — staying together in a location that can be kept sanitised and isolated from the outside world. Before attending, players would need to undergo a series of medical checks, including swab tests but also serological blood testing to seek indications of whether individuals have had the virus previously and what antibodies are present in their system.

The newspaper La Repubblica cited Professor Walter Ricciardi, an advisor to the Italian Soccer Federation’s commission, as well as a member of the World Health Organization’s executive board, as being confident that such testing could be made available by the end of the month, without giving athletes any special consideration over the general population.

Even in a best-case scenario, however, administering all this will be no small exercise. Several Serie A clubs don’t have living quarters at their training facility, so even the more straightforward element of creating a fully sanitised bubble for such a training camp to take place in would require booking out a hotel and creating an isolated environment therein.

Would this scenario extend to playing competitive matches as well?

“No, that is part of a second step, which has still not been completely analysed from a safety standpoint,” Zeppilli explained. “Teams will have to come out of isolation to travel, so we need to assess things well. Maybe in the next month we will have new information regarding the pandemic that will allow us to review the protocols.”

A model for returning to training already exists in Germany, where Bayern Munich are among a number of Bundesliga clubs who have done so in the past fortnight. To begin with, players worked only in small groups, maintaining safe distances, rather than throwing themselves into full team exercises.

There is no roadmap yet, however, for a return to competitive action. Gravina floated a number of scenarios on Wednesday, including the possibility that Serie A may need to prohibit playing games in the northern regions that have been worst affected by the coronavirus outbreak. That would mean no more home-field advantage for several of the division’s top clubs like Inter, Atalanta, AC Milan and, depending where the lines were drawn, potentially Juventus.

Such a step would be likely to meet with fierce resistance. But then, so has the idea of finishing this season at all.

Serie A balls ahead of the league match between Juventus and AC Milan.
Could Serie A follow the likes of the Bundesliga and return to training in the near future?

“It has no sense anymore,” insisted Brescia‘s Massimo Cellino. “We have stopped, no team will return as it was before. Stadiums with closed doors, and athletes’ health at risk. For me, returning to action is pure folly. If they make us, then I’m inclined to not send the team out and have the games awarded as 3-0 defeats, out of respect for the citizens of Brescia and their loved ones who are not with us anymore.”

Cellino has repeated the threat in more than one interview, but still, it might be wise to take his words with a pinch of salt. He is no stranger to overblown rhetoric, yet his belief that the season ought to be voided is supported by Sampdoria‘s Massimo Ferrero and Torino‘s Urbano Cairo.

Just like Lotito, they could each be accused of allowing their outlook to be influenced by sporting interests. All three men opposing the conclusion of the 2019-20 season own clubs that were at risk of relegation before Italy went into lockdown. Then again, as Cairo reminded reporters this week, he also owns Gazzetta dello Sport, the nation’s best-read sports newspaper. Having no soccer to report on is not exactly good for business.

Too rarely heard, amid all this boardroom bluster, are the voices of the players themselves. Sandro Tonali, the brilliant teenage midfielder whose emergence has been a rare bright spot in Brescia’s season, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that “I am with Cellino. We will play only when and if it is truly possible, not one day before.

“We played on too long, already, before stopping. I remember the surreal atmosphere of the match against Sassuolo, our last one. It had no sense. We are talking about deaths here, hospitals, health.

“Football is a party. I can be ready to play, but is our public ready? To celebrate a goal? To get angry over a defeat? With all that’s going on?”

The national soccer players’ union may yet weigh in. Its president, Damiano Tommasi, was critical when Lazio, together with Napoli, first proposed resuming training in March, before a previous extension to the lockdown was imposed. He has not returned to the topic recently, his focus instead on resisting an attempt by clubs to impose unilateral pay cuts on players during this interruption.

Juventus’s players agreed provisionally to waive four months’ wages, pending a return to action, and Parma were reported to have struck a deal with their players on Wednesday, but elsewhere an absence of similar agreements could yet create obstacles to returning to work.

There is a thorny question, too, around what would happen if any players contract the virus after soccer resumes. Any rigid schedule for completing this season might be instantly derailed if a team was forced to place itself back in quarantine.

“We would need to isolate them and assess the situation,” Zeppilli said. “But this is something that could happen in a future when everyone has been vaccinated. To give an example, maybe today an athlete could test positive for measles, which 90% of the population has been vaccinated against. In such a case, too, we would proceed with isolation.”

Gravina is sanguine. “We are working on the question of ‘how’ [to return to action],” he insisted, “not ‘when’. When the country gets back to living, when the conditions are right for other sectors [to return to work], football will be back, too. The league will be brought to its conclusion, there is time.

“We will all decide together. The government, the league, the federation and the doctors. The whole country would benefit from our return. A definitive stop [cancelling the league] would only launch a series of disputes. I already have injunctions from several clubs on my table.”

In contrast to Lotito, he does not see any need to rush. If the season drags on into the winter then so be it. The knock-on for the following campaign could be handled in a number of different ways.

“One hypothesis is that the [next season’s] competitions could be arranged to fit a calendar year,” suggested Gravina. “If not, then we would need to finish in May 2021, before the European Championships, so the league would need to be settled in five months. There are some ideas for that, too — for example a formula where you split the league into parallel groups and then have playoffs and playouts. Exceptional measures, just for one season.”

Or, who knows, maybe more. The truth is that nobody knows how long this pandemic will continue, whether there will be secondary waves of infection, or how long social distancing measures — in some form or another — will need to remain in place.

Professional soccer, just like every other industry in Italy, can only continue to wait and react. Lotito will get his wish to have players back in training sooner or later. The important question is not when it happens, but whether his club will have prepared itself to manage that scenario as well as he believes that it has.

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