The Italian Ministry of Health has confirmed that, as of Tuesday, February 25, the number of coronavirus infections in Italy had passed 220, more than seven people had died as a result and more than 25 were in critical condition. This was enough for the Italian Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora to order all sports federations in the country to hold competitions in the regions of Lombardi, Veneto, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria and Friuli-Venezia Giulia behind closed doors.
This means that the Italian Football Federation must hold this week’s competitions of Lega Calcio, its “Serie A” football league – Udinese vs Fiorentina, Inter Milan vs Genoa, Parma vs Spal, Sassuolo vs Brescia, Sampdoria vs Hellas Verona and, most important of all, the championship match of Juventus vs Inter Milan – without spectators. Some of these matches have already been postponed.
Early estimates show that the Italian sports industry will lose more than €10 million in ticket sales and in fines for canceling TV broadcasts. But Italian sports officials evidently feel this is a small price to pay to save human lives.
“Human life is much more precious than football”
In Iran, however, this does not seem to be the case.
“Don’t we care about human life?” Farhad Majidi, manager of Esteghlal FC asked during a news conference on Tuesday, February 25. “Are all the airports, buses and hotels disinfected for us to travel and risk our lives for a few games? Why don’t they understand such a simple thing? Human life is much, much more precious than football, Pro League and the Asian Champions League. Is it necessary for some players and coaches to die before they get this?”
President Hasan Rouhani, however, left no doubt as to where the government stood. Both on Tuesday and in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, he announced that “There is no decision to impose quarantines at a city level. Coronavirus must not become a weapon in the hands of the enemy to shut down the country.”
Following this announcement by the president, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar issued a seven-point statement, including calls for athletes “to protect themselves”, banning “spectators from stadiums” and “holding important competitions” across the country.
Soltanifar ordered that all competitions at the highest level of Iranian sports — Football Pro League and League 1, Handball Pro League, Futsal Pro League, Women’s Basketball Pro League, Women’s Futsal Pro League, Women’s Football Pro League and the Tennis Playoff Cup — must be held as scheduled. He did not specify which sports federations can postpone their competitions in response to the coronavirus epidemic.
Spectators are not the only source of danger
It is not surprising that the Football Federation, an entity that is not allowed to make independent decisions, would continue to insist that all scheduled matches must proceed. The best it has done is to hold matches without spectators. But spectators are not the only people who can carry or transmit coronavirus in Iran.
In his press conference, Farhad Majidi mentioned hotels, buses, airports and stadiums as areas where people can be exposed. But even if we suppose that football players, coaches and other staff did not contract coronavirus in hotels, airports, stadiums, buses or airplanes, there remain the locker rooms and restrooms that are cleaned each time by a service team separate from the football club personnel and they could also be carriers of coronavirus.
As of February 23, the number of coronavirus infections in Japan had reached 135 – but this number did not include hundreds of infected passengers and the crew of the cruise ship Diamond Princess which is anchored in Yokohama harbor. Two days ago, the Japanese government announced that two Japanese passengers of the ship had died.
Japan immediately suspended its football league competitions. It also asked the Asian Football Confederation to postpone AFC Champions League games due to the outbreak of a coronavirus epidemic in Japan, South Korea and China.
Thinking about Canceling 2020 Tokyo Olympics
But Japan is also preparing to make a far more important decision. On Wednesday, senior members of Japan’s National Olympic Committee met and decided that it may be necessary to cancel all events of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Hosting the Olympics or the football World Cup is a symbol of a host country’s economic and political standing. A country that wins the chance to host one of these events is more concerned with its international image and credibility than with making money. Now, unlike their Iranian counterparts, Japanese politicians have taken the lead by considering canceling the Olympics for the sake of protecting the world from a pandemic.
They were echoed by Dick Pound, a former Canadian swimming champion and a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who said on February 25 that if the IOC decides that Olympic Games cannot go forward as scheduled in Tokyo, “You’re probably looking at a cancellation.” He emphasized that there is a two-month or three-month window to decide the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, meaning a decision could be put off until late May.
“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.
In Iran, Esmail Khalilzadeh, acting CEO of Esteghlal FC, told the club’s official website that “Esteghlal is not going to Sirjan to play against Gol Gohar [Sirjan FC]. I am not going to take personal responsibility for such a trip [to the southeastern city of Sirjan in Kerman province].”
Khalilzadeh added that he values the lives of the players more than a thousand championship cups. But Iran’s Football League Organization has ordered his club to prepare for the game against Gol Gohar. According to this organization, five games would be held on Thursday, February 27, in the cities of Tabriz, Ahvaz, Sirjan, Isfahan and Tehran.
Banning spectators from the stadiums will by itself do little to help. It is enough for the Persepolis and Esteghlal clubs to go to a city for their fans to mob their hotels. And the footballers, the coaches and their staff must make their way through the crowds to get to their buses. Even when they are not traveling and when spectators are not allowed inside stadiums, fans can create the same scene outside the arena.
Three football games are to be held on Friday, February 28, in the cities of Jam, Karaj and Masjid Soleyman. On the same day, the cities of Tehran, Saveh, Shiraz, Tabriz, Rafsanjan, Rasht and Urmia, and the province of Khuzestan, will host League 1 competitions. The players and the coaches will face each other without the presence of spectators. But they do have to go through stadiums, hotels, airports, planes and buses and nobody knows how infected they are with coronavirus.
On Wednesday, the Asian Football Confederation announced that the match between Persepolis and the Saudi Al-Taawoun FC has been canceled due to concerns by the Saudi team that Persepolis team might infect its members with coronavirus. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, did not allow Iranian women weightlifters into the country. Elnaz Bajlani, Forough Yunesi, Parisa Jahanfekrian and Elham Hosseini were the four members of the Iranian Women’s National Weightlifting Team who were scheduled to travel to the UAE to compete for the West Asian Championship – but the UAE has closed its airspace to flights from and to Iran.
Quarantine or Public Prayers? That is the Question in Iran, 25 February 2020
Iran's Deputy Health Minister has Contracted Coronavirus, 25 February 2020
Reports of Coronavirus in Three Iranian Prisons, 25 February 2020
50 Coronavirus Deaths in Iran’s Clerical Center, 24 February 2020
Students Call for University Closure Until Norooz, 24 February 2020
Iran Suspends All Sports Events Fearing Spread of Coronavirus, 24 February 2020
Coronavirus Brings Iran to a Halt, 23 February 2020