Scott Stinson: European soccer is being played outside bubbles. The NHL and NBA should take notice

The scene in Barcelona on the weekend was at once ridiculous and yet also becoming weirdly normal

Article content

The game in Barcelona was not yet five minutes old, and Ruslan Neshcheret didn’t really stand a chance.

Neshcheret is a goalkeeper for Dynamo Kyiv. He is 18 years old. He’s the club’s third-string keeper, but because Kyiv was missing almost half its team, including the first two goalies, due to positive COVID-19 tests, it was young Ruslan who was thrown in net to face mighty Barca in the Champions League. And in the fourth minute, Lionel Messi drew a penalty.

Neshcheret was playing for Kyiv’s senior team for the second time four days and also the second time in his life. Messi is on the very short list of greatest footballers ever. He calmly ripped a left-footed shot past the goalkeeper, who had even guessed correctly with his dive. Neshcheret would later say it was a dream come true. One assumes that in his dreams he stops the penalty shot from Messi, but point taken.

The scene in Barcelona on the weekend was at once ridiculous and yet also becoming weirdly normal. Just 13 members of Dynamo Kyiv’s first team made the trip from Ukraine to Spain — which is tricky when 11 players are needed on the pitch — for what was eventually a surprisingly difficult 2-1 win for the home side. A day earlier, the Dutch team Ajax took only a squad of 17 to a Champions League game in Denmark after 11 of its players had tested positive for COVID-19. And in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, the Italian club Lazio was missing a handful of its regular starters for COVID reasons with, again, close to half the team quarantined. Chelsea’s Kai Havertz also missed a Champions League match against Rennes after a positive test of his own.

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Where once the sport disappeared for months when the pandemic hit, now there is an uneasy dance as the leagues try to continue to operate

European soccer was one of the first professional sports to rumble back to life in the summer after the pandemic shut everything down last March. For a time, it was those clubs and leagues that were conducting a real-life test case into whether sports could be safely contested without the fields of play becoming superspreader stages. There was no lack of skepticsm over the plans, but it largely worked. Domestic leagues in England, Germany, Spain and Italy managed to complete seasons by frequently testing players and staff, and the Champions League was awarded after a late-summer sprint held entirely in Lisbon.

With coronavirus cases in much of Europe having dropped significantly by late summer, there was little controversy this time over starting new seasons. But after an uneventful beginning, things have gone squirrely in a hurry. International-team duty, plus continent-wide tournaments like the Champions League, have conspired to send players and staff all over Europe week after week. All of that travel has meant there is nothing close to any kind of a bubble being observed, and so it’s hoped that players will avoid contracting the virus by being careful. The testing associated with these tournaments, though, is now routinely uncovering positive COVID cases and putting players and their close contacts into quarantine.

More On This Topic

  1. Dortmund's Swiss goalkeeper Roman Buerki fails to keep out the opening goal scored by Bayern Munich's German midfielder Joshua Kimmich during the German first division Bundesliga football match BVB Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Munich on May 26, 2020 in Dortmund, western Germany.

    Scott Stinson: A big soccer match, and a suggestion that pro sports in a pandemic can still look familiar

  2. A person wearing a face mask rides his bicycle in front of El Campin stadium during quarantine on April 21, 2020 in Bogota, Colombia.

    Scott Stinson on COVID-19: Meet the Canadian doctor behind efforts to restart Colombian pro soccer

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

It’s a situation not unlike that unfolding in the National Football League, but across dozens of countries. Player X is discovered to be positive for the virus, and so the team immediately tries to figure out which other players and staff might have been exposed to him. Those people are also isolated, and more tests are given. If results continue to be negative after a certain number of days — that number seems to keep getting smaller compared to the early pandemic — then the player rejoins the team. Because so many leagues and countries are involved in European soccer, it’s a hodge-podge of rules. The Ajax manager noted, for example, that his players would have been cleared to play at home in the Netherlands but they were not allowed in Denmark. (Last month the Italian club Napoli was given a forfeit for a match in Turin after positive tests meant it was forbidden by local health authorities from travelling even within Italy.)

COVID-related lineup changes are happening in Europe as many of those countries are locking down due to virus surges. Where once the sport disappeared for months when the pandemic hit, now there is an uneasy dance as the leagues try to continue to operate, staging matches while governments urge the public to stay home. Where once there was an urgency to prevent any players from bringing an infection to their team, now there’s a tacit admission that cases will be diagnosed, but the games will go on. So far, at least, the whole thing hasn’t fallen apart.

It’s something that the NHL and NBA must be watching with great interest. Their costly, complicated and inconvenient bubbles were effective in walling off the virus and allowing the 2020 seasons to finish. But if games will be played in 2021, it’s expected that players will have more freedom to be outside league-controlled areas, even if only for a limited time. If hockey and basketball are going to take that approach, they can look to Europe and soccer for what can happen. Better make sure you keep a few teenagers around who can jump in on short notice.

Postmedia News

sstinson@postmedia.com

This Week in Flyers