Sports bow to need for caution in face of coronavirus

Paris (AFP) –


The impact of coronavirus on major sports events rippled into more countries and competitions on Tuesday as governments, organisers and leagues moved to avoid the risk of large gatherings.

The day after Italy cancelled all domestic sport, the French, Spanish, Germans and Portuguese announced matches will be played in empty stadia while some games in the Netherlands were cancelled.

In Greece, where "mass gatherings" were banned last week, Thursday's torch lighting ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be held without spectators.

In the United States, motor cycling's Grand Prix of the Americas at Austin joined the casualties when it was postponed from April to November.

Algeria and the Czech Republic also joined the growing list of countries banning events with crowds.

Meanwhile, athletes lined up behind such measures.

LeBron James, the biggest star in the NBA, backtracked on his initial reaction last week when he said: "I ain't playing if I ain't got the fans in the crowd."

On Tuesday, the LA Lakers forward changed his tone.

"You gotta listen to the people that's keeping a track of what's going on and if they feel that's what's best for the safety of the players, the safety of the franchise, the safety of the league, to mandate that, then we're going to listen to them," he said.

In Italy, Sassuolo striker Francesco Caputo said that "scared" Serie A players wanted the league stopped earlier because of the coronavirus crisis.

In the final Serie A game before the league halted until at least April 3, Caputo scored and held up a handwritten message on a piece of paper, urging fans: "Everything will be fine. Stay at home."

- Spain, France close doors -

As the global death toll passed 4,250, the High Sports Council in Spain, decided sporting events should be played without fans to limit the spread of the virus.

La Liga announced that fixtures in the country's top two tiers will go ahead in front of empty stands for the next fortnight.

Real Madrid's game against Eibar at the Santiago Bernabeu on Friday will be the first fixture affected.

Barcelona had earlier confirmed their Champions League tie against Napoli at the Camp Nou on March 18 would be played without spectators.

In France, football authorities ordered Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 games to be held behind closed doors until April 15, after the government on Sunday issued a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League match at the Parc des Princes against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday had already been forced behind closed doors.

PSG's Ligue 1 match at Strasbourg last Saturday was postponed due to the extent of the outbreak in the Alsace region of eastern France.

France's scheduled friendlies against Ukraine in Paris on March 27 and Finland in Lyon on March 31 will also be held at empty venues.

In Germany, fans were barred from two Bundesliga games as well as the national team's March 31 friendly at home to Italy in Nuremberg.

Wednesday's Rhine derby between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Cologne will be the first game in Bundesliga history played without fans.

Other high-profile but fan-free fixtures will include Saturday's Ruhr derby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, and Bayern Munich's Champions League clash with Chelsea next week.

In the Netherlands, all top matches in North Brabant were cancelled. Eindhoven is the largest city in the province.

Portugal's Primeira Liga will also go behind closed doors with immediate effect with no date given for reopening stadiums to fans.

Fans were barred from Manchester United's Europa League match against LASK in Linz on Thursday.

The MotoGP season will have to wait longer for the starting flag as the Grand Prix of the Americas at Austin was postponed from April to November.

Austin was the third date on the original calendar but the first race of the season in the elite category, set for last Sunday in Qatar, was cancelled and the second, in Thailand on March 22, has already been rescheduled April 19

The Argentine Grand Prix on becomes, potentially, the first race of the season.