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Football fever? Paris grapples with virus surge while PSG fans pine for glory

People with face masks cross the Champs Elyseés avenue, with the Arc de Triomphe in background, in Paris, on August 15, 2020.
People with face masks cross the Champs Elyseés avenue, with the Arc de Triomphe in background, in Paris, on August 15, 2020. © Kamil Zihnioglu, AP Photo
Text by: Tracy MCNICOLL
10 min

Eyeing elusive Champions League glory this week, a win for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) on Tuesday would mean its first ever final on Sunday. The stakes are high for the club. But they may be even higher for Paris, a city France now classifies as a high-risk zone for coronavirus, battling to stave off a new lockdown nightmare as cases rise. Will PSG fans heed Covid-19 advice? Or is a perfect storm brewing for the virus in the French capital?

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If Anne Hidalgo had the intersection of coronavirus and football on her mind last Wednesday night, when her beloved PSG scored a miracle berth in the Champions League's final four with two comeback goals against Atalanta in the 90th minute, it didn't show on the Paris mayor's Twitter feed. Hidalgo dispatched ten tweets or retweets in a row about the club's exploits on the night. "Bravo and thank you, what a joy!!!!!! Paris, the most beautiful of teams," she gushed after PSG got the dream win.

Indeed, the club hasn't been to Europe's final four in 25 years, despite Qatari ownership over the past nine splurging on superstars (Ibrahimovic, Beckham, Neymar, Mbappé) only to fall short again and again in or before the quarter-finals.

This time was different, in a pandemic-delayed fixture in Lisbon, played behind closed doors, coronavirus oblige. Adding the magic, the team sealed the privilege on the very day Paris Saint-Germain celebrated its 50th anniversary. The following night, there was more auspicious news for PSG when relative upstart Leipzig upset Atletico Madrid in their quarter-final, making the French club a clear favourite in its semi-final on Tuesday. To sweeten the excitement, if they win the final is just five days away.

Back in Paris, meanwhile, coronavirus has been gaining a new foothold. The French prime minister on Friday decreed the capital a high-risk zone in the virus fight.

"All the indicators show the virus is once again circulating actively in Paris: Every day, around 600 people test positive for Covid-19 in the [Ile-de-France] region, including 260 in Paris," the Paris police prefecture explained on Saturday as it released a new map spattered with broad zones where masks are now mandatory outdoors. "The positive test rate is at 4.14% in Paris... compared to 2.4% on average nationally," the prefecture added. The prevalence of infections is "intensifying in Paris with more than 51 new cases detected per 100,000 at the moment, compared to eight per 100,000 at the beginning of the month...". It also noted that the spread is worse among the 15 to 45 year olds than other groups, with 52 cases per 100,000.

The new Paris map outlining mandatory masks outdoors includes much of the city centre (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th arrondissements), as well as the Champs Elysées. The "plus belle avenue du monde" was not on the mandatory mask list when masks were first made law on select streets outdoors earlier this month. But its inclusion now is good timing; the Champs Elysées is a natural gathering place for football fans after a red-letter win — or even after a big loss.

Another natural gathering place for Paris Saint-Germain fans might be the club's stadium, the Parc des Princes, in the 16th arrondissement. One hardcore group of PSG fans, the Collectif Ultras Paris, posted a video of supporters in a frenzy in front of the team's empty home ground in the early hours of Thursday morning, celebrating the win over Atalanta in the red glare of flares. There wasn't a mask to be seen in the clip, nor social distancing amid the full-throated chanting. The Parc des Princes is not in a mandatory outdoor mask zone.

"Outside these zones, mask wearing is recommended in public spaces as soon as the population becomes dense," Paris's police prefecture said Saturday. "Should the epidemiological situation worsen again, mask wearing could become mandatory in the entire capital." Police also said they would boost inspections of bars, restaurants and their outdoor patios with an eye to ensuring social distancing and other anti-viral measures are being respected, under penalty of shutting establishments down. "Gatherings and events with more than ten people must guarantee [virus] barrier measures are respected. They will be prohibited if organisers cannot guarantee their application," the prefecture said Saturday.

On Monday, the Collectif Ultras Paris announced it wouldn't be organising a gathering for the semi-final. "Unfortunately, and as with the quarter-final, we have found no location that could welcome our fervour while respecting health rules," the group said. The collective's motto is "Together we are invincible", but it has evidently decided not to test that premise epidemiologically.

Paris Saint-Germain, for its part, notes that it broadcast coronavirus-prevention video messages featuring its players on big screens inside the Parc des Princes during friendly matches in recent weeks. They showed, for instance, a larger-than-life Kylian Mbappé coughing into the crook of his arm and greeting teammates with elbow checks — an effort to spread awareness and, just perhaps, make fighting Covid-19 cool to fans young and old.The club is not organising major fan events in Paris or Lisbon for the semi-final, given coronavirus rules.

Paris City Hall, when asked whether it planned to take any special measures given the likelihood of spontaneous football gatherings in the "red zone" city, deferred to the Paris Police Prefecture.

"The Police Prefecture will put into place a preventative plan of action on the Champs Elysées in order to detect any gathering of fans and will pay particular attention to locations where the matches will be broadcast during this sporting event," the prefecture told FRANCE 24 on Monday night of its plan for the PSG-Leipzig semi-final. It provided no information about additional precautions at the Parc des Princes.

Broadcast locations monitored

Indeed, gathering to celebrate (or commiserate) after the game isn't the only kind of risky assembly at issue in Paris. Tuesday's semi-final is only available to paying television viewers who have the RMC Sport channel, making the prospect of even watching the action a dilemma for many fans amid the pandemic.

"Covid: Should we watch the PSG in bars?" So Foot magazine asked on Monday. "In absolute terms, what should be done is to put the televisions outdoors," Dr Yvon Le Flohic, an epidemiologist who co-signed an open letter to make masks mandatory in all closed collective spaces in France, told the football magazine's website. "Actually, it's hard to provide a definitive answer. Aggravating behaviours are nevertheless well-known: Screaming or speaking loudly, singing or hollering loudly, jumping into one's neighbour's arms, forgetting the preventative measures [distancing, masks, hand-washing]," Le Flohic added. "Wearing a mask certainly limits the effects, but I wonder how an obligation of that kind will assert itself during an event of this sort."

Such concerns at the intersection of football and pestilence will be ticking over in the minds of health professionals not just in Paris but across the country this week, just as new Covid-19 infections continue their upswing nationally.

Fans in Lyon have their own Champions League semi-final to enjoy on Wednesday, marking the first time two clubs from France's Ligue 1 have made it that far in the same year. The Olympique Lyonnais (OL) reached the semi-finals for the first time in a decade on Saturday with two late goals over Manchester City. But their semi-final opponent — a towering Bayern Munich fresh off an 8-2 roasting of Barcelona — makes OL more of a longshot to make Sunday's finals than Paris Saint-Germain. Lyon fans also don't have the same game-watching safety dilemma as the Parisians for their semi-final. Free-to-air TV channel TF1 announced Tuesday that it would be broadcasting Wednesday's match for all to see. TF1 also has the broadcast rights for Sunday's Champions League final.

Meanwhile, after a pandemic curtailed its 2019-2020 calendar, Ligue 1 was slated to kick off its new season on Friday. But coronavirus has put a spanner in those works. At least 37 players from 11 different clubs in France's top-flight football league have tested positive in recent weeks, with the vast majority contracting their infections since training resumed in June.

On Tuesday morning, Olympique de Marseille (OM) announced that it had three more confirmed cases of Covid-19 among its personnel, for a total of four in four days. OM was scheduled to meet Saint-Étienne at Marseille's Stade Vélodrome on Friday evening for the opening fixture of Ligue 1's 2020-2021 season, but those circumstances decided otherwise. At noon on Tuesday, the game was postponed.

The city of Marseille, like Paris, is in a red zone as coronavirus cases mount. The club had asked for special dispensation to allow 20,000 spectators into its 67,000-seat stadium for Friday's Ligue 1 opener, but local authorities turned down the request. Last week, Prime Minister Jean Castex extended through to October 30 the nationwide ban on gatherings of more than 5,000 people.

After a weekend that saw two consecutive days with more than 3,000 new infections daily, France's seven-day rolling average stood at 2,322 on Monday. With more than 2,000 average new infections for a fourth day running, Reuters reports, France is enduring a sequence not seen since April 20.

Whether football plays a role in bumping those figures upwards ahead of the critical back-to-school period comes down to fans. Will young supporters hungry for victory after years of disappointment throw coronavirus caution to the wind? Will Parisians on summer holiday be tempted to return home a little early to take part in festivities? Stay tuned.

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