Most players were already tucked up in bed by the time the decisions were taken. It was past midnight on Sunday morning but in Milan, Turin, Bergamo and Verona the directors of Serie A teams were still awake, working the phones, trying to find out whether that day’s matches would go ahead.
On Saturday evening, the government had passed legislation placing 11 northern towns in lockdown, prohibiting travel in or out as they attempted to contain outbreaks of coronavirus in Lombardy and the Veneto. The same decree granted government ministers powers to suspend public gatherings. A decision was taken to cancel all sporting events, right down to the amateur level, across the affected regions.
Four out of six top-flight games scheduled for Sunday wound up being postponed: Atalanta-Sassuolo, Verona-Cagliari, Inter-Sampdoria and Torino-Parma. The last of those decisions was not confirmed until almost lunchtime. Two fresh cases of the disease had been identified in Piedmont, the region in which Turin is located, that morning.
As supermarket shelves were emptied of non-perishable foods, football wrestled with its own response to an unfolding national crisis. The need to prioritise public safety was grinding up against the necessities of an overbooked sporting calendar.
With Euro 2020 coming up in the summer, there is no option to extend this season, and teams are running out of viable dates to reschedule games. If Inter were to reach the finals of the Europa League and Coppa Italia, their only open Wednesday would be 20 May – four days before the end of this campaign.
The club’s CEO, Beppe Marotta, spent Sunday lobbying to reschedule the domestic cup final for that date instead, a scenario that would allow his team to push back the second leg of their semi-final against Napoli as well. He would like to use the date assigned to that fixture, 5 March, to catch up the game against Samp instead.
His sense of urgency is understandable. For Inter, not playing this weekend meant falling six points behind the league leaders, Juventus, who beat Spal on Saturday. Although the Nerazzurri retain their game in hand, the psychological impact of having to play catch-up for the next three months in the title race could be significant.
Yet even Marotta’s plan contained a degree of presumption. We do not know yet whether further games will be suspended. The initial ban on sporting events will last until the end of 1 March. Yet how confidently can anyone plan in what is plainly a fluid situation, with more deaths from coronavirus victims in Italy reported on Monday morning.
Any games played in the meantime, in the affected regions, will have to take place behind closed doors. The suggestion evoked a passionate response from Simone Inzaghi, who argued that football should “absolutely not” be played without fans, the “lifeblood of the sport”, yet this is not a situation that he or any other manager can hope to control. As the front cover of Monday morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport put it, what we have right now is a “Scudetto in Quarantine”.
The timing could not be worse, with Juventus scheduled to host Inter on 1 March in the highest-stakes Derby d’Italia for years. Playing it in a different part of Italy has been mooted, as an alternative to going behind closed doors, but that would be a bitter pill to swallow for the Bianconeri, who have dropped only two points all season at Allianz Stadium.
They did win away from home this weekend, against opponents who sit bottom of the table. Spal were dogged but outmatched. Cristiano Ronaldo, making the 1,000th appearance of his professional career, marked the occasion by scoring for the 11th consecutive league game – matching the Serie A record held by Gabriel Batistuta and Fabio Quagliarella.
Aaron Ramsey also found the net for the first time since November. His has been a frustrating first term in Turin, complicated by injuries and inconsistency. Maurizio Sarri still has not settled on a fixed starting XI, however, leaving at least a possibility for the Welshman to claim a more prominent role for the final part of the campaign.
Juventus will need more than just Ronaldo chipping in if they are to stay ahead of a Lazio side that has goals in abundance. Ciro Immobile extended his tally to 27 as they won 3-2 win at Genoa on Sunday, joining Antonio Angelillo (at Inter, in 1958-59) as the only players ever to reach that number after 25 games of a Serie A campaign.
Immobile is now just nine shy of the single-season record set by Gonzalo Higuaín, but this was another weekend to remind us that Lazio are no one-man team. Adam Marusic’s opener, in which he kept his feet after being buffeted from either side by Andrea Masiello and Adama Soumaoro, both of whom wound up on the floor, was the pick of their goals, but Danilo Cataldi’s opportunistic free-kick for the third was also well taken.
For a Sunday with only two matches, there were quite a few strikes to enjoy. Even in defeat, the first-time finish that Francesco Cassata dispatched into the top corner for Genoa was perfection. Roma put four past Lecce, ending their run of three straight league defeats.
Still, it was not enough to fill the void. Endless televised analysis and post-game interviews are the backing track to Italy’s Sunday afternoons. Short of action to discuss, the long-time pundit Massimo De Luca instead turned his ire on Rai 2’s ‘A Tutta Rete’ toward the “absurdity” of a 20-team top-flight, arguing that this situation showed again why fewer teams would benefit Serie A, leaving more flexibility in the calendar.
His words drew applause from a small studio audience. Other broadcasts had already closed their doors in response to the outbreak. The silence felt weighty at times on shows where audience reaction is a familiar part of the experience. It was nothing compared to that which might await Serie A’s players next weekend.