Two European football giants, Atlético Madrid and Chelsea, will meet in the Champions League on Tuesday. The site of this long awaited game? Bucharest, Romania.
Manchester City will face German team Borussia Mönchengladbach on Wednesday. This match will take place in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where English champion Liverpool defeated German RB Leipzig last week.
In the Europa League, the continent’s second tier club championship, neutral venues are now almost as common as home games. Last week, Spanish and English teams played in Italy, and teams from Norway and Germany met in Spain. On Thursday, a week after London club Arsenal’s draw against Portugal’s Benfica in Rome, the teams will meet again in the second leg of their home and away leg near Athens.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on international sporting calendars for a year, and this chaos continues to impact the biggest club football tournaments. The reasons – government decrees, travel restrictions and quarantine rules – vary across Europe. In some countries, teams are still allowed to move smoothly to and from their opponents’ stadiums. In others, countries have blocked entry for visitors from entire nations, or have devised onerous rules that make this type of travel impractical during a football season when teams often play two or three games a week.
UEFA, the governing body of European football that manages the competitions, has decided that if restrictions have a negative effect on a match, it will be played at a neutral venue where travel is permitted. But the decision to play knockout matches in seemingly random locations led to confusion and not a bit of grumbling.
Real Sociedad, for example, played their ‘home’ game against Manchester United last week in Turin, Italy, but will play the second leg at United’s home Old Trafford on Thursday.
“It doesn’t seem consistent to me that as a home team we play on neutral ground, and as a visitor we do it there,” said Roberto Olabe, Real Sociedad director of football. , to Diario Vasco. “I would like the return to be on neutral ground as well, or for UEFA to designate a single site for a draw like last year.”
The discontent has not been universal. Hungary and Romania, whose teams are hardly ever immersed in major European competitions, have been eager to bring the games to their countries – although in many cases they have yet to be played behind closed doors.
“A match played in the framework of the most prestigious club competition in Europe is a major sporting event, and we offered our support to the organizers as soon as this possibility arose”, said the president of the Romanian football federation, Razvan Burleanu, at Agence France-Presse.
Playing some games on neutral venues turned the tournament’s first tiebreaker, the away goals rule, into something of a paradox. Normally, if a home and away match ends without either team leading in total goals, the team with the most away goals advances. The logic is that scoring away from home is a bit more difficult in a hostile environment and should get a little bonus.
But the house is not the same for everyone. Chelsea, for example, will play their away game not at Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium, but on neutral ground in Bucharest. But any goals scored there will still only count as away goals for the English team.
Atlético will then have to defend or compensate for any difference in the score line at Chelsea’s home ground in London next month.
For the Benfica-Arsenal game, the away goals rule seemed even more surprisingly arbitrary. The first leg in Rome ended in a 1-1 draw, with Arsenal considered the away team. Benfica will be the away team in Greece, but if this stage ends in a better scoring draw – say 2-2 – Benfica will progress by scoring more away goals.
(Some traditions in European football seem immune to coronavirus: Serbian Red Star club Belgrade were forced to apologize last week after some of their fans broke into a closed stadium for a match League against Milan and racially abused Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of Bosnian descent.)
Soccer planning issues may not be resolved, however. The continuing reach of the pandemic has called into question plans to host the European Championship this summer in 12 cities across Europe. Traditionally, the event has been a less sprawling affair organized by a country or two neighboring countries.
Given the travel complications exposed by club competitions, the idea of national teams flying in Europe seems reckless, if not downright dangerous. There are already calls to move the entire tournament to a single county, possibly England, which is already set to host the two semi-finals and the final.
Over the weekend, The Sunday Times in London reported that the British government had told UEFA that it was ready and willing to host the full schedule of matches, although the Minister for Health of the country quickly denied this report.