Italian football witnesses player revolt over virus

Rome (AFP) –


Italy's chaotic football season witnessed a player revolt Sunday over the idea of having to play matches during the coronavirus outbreak -- and the league demand for the games to go ahead.

Series A football has been in disarray for well over a week from the impact of a virus that first developed late last year in China and then made Italy its primary target in Europe.

Sunday's single-day record of 133 fatalities brought Italy's toll from the past two weeks to 366. Only China's is higher.

Tempers between the various football bosses and owners first flared when matches began being rescheduled and moved to different cities last month.

Inter Milan's Chinese chairman Steven Zhang called Serie A president Paolo Dal Pino "the darkest clown I have ever seen" Tuesday for postponing his team's game for the second consecutive week.

Things turned only more dramatic on Sunday.

- Lockdown -

Italians woke up to discover the entire Lombardy region around Milan and other parts of the north in which a quarter of all Italians live -- and most big teams play -- under lockdown.

Museums were shut across the country and the pope was asked to deliver his Sunday prayer by livestream instead of in person from his Vatican window to keep the crowds down on Saint Peter's Square.

And yet the games were still supposed to be played behind closed doors and without any fans.

The idea seemed preposterous to many.

Italian Footballers' Association president Damiano Tommasi tweeted that "stopping football is the most useful thing for our country right now".

"The teams to cheer are playing in our hospitals, in emergency rooms," Tommasi wrote.

Italy's Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora quickly sounded his own support for the idea of suspending the season right away.

"The FIGC (Italian Football Federation) should consider immediately STOPPING Serie A," Spadafora wrote on Facebook.

And soon Mario Balotelli -- the prodigiously talented but endlessly restless centre forward who now plies his trade with Serie A bottom dwellers Brescia -- expressed his own outrage at the matches still being played.

"Why all this? To entertain someone? Or not to lose money?" he fumed on Instagram.

- Stuck in the tunnel -

Things turned even more surreal as the hours ticked by and it was actually time to kick the ball in anger in the afternoon's first match between Parma and SPAL.

Both teams' players waited in the tunnel for a while before going back to the locker rooms as match officials tried to figure out whether the season was on or off.

Parma's Stadio Ennio Tardini was empty anyway because teams were first told to play behind closed door for a month on Wednesday.

The city around the stadium was deserted because Parma's Emilia-Romagna region was included in the government's new quarantine zone.

Then the whistle blew and the teams played out a drab match that started 75 minutes late and ended with SPAL winning 1-0.

Serie A's leadership was unimpressed.

The league issued a scathing statement in the evening at 5:15 p.m. -- before the night's big showdown between Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus and Inter Milan -- lashing out at the both the government and the players' association.

It said the Footballers' Association's Tommasi "seriously endangered the keeping of the system... and endangering the payment of players' salaries."

It then went on to attack the government for issuing "repeated and conflicting declarations that only contribute to the general state of confusion and certainly do not help the system overcome this moment of difficulty."

It said the league council met Sunday and decided "continuing with the games held behind closed doors".

The season is still tentatively set to conclude in the second half of May.