The European Football Championships would have been an organizational feat even without the coronavirus.
The 24 competing national teams will travel the continent for the first time to play matches in 11 stadiums from Glasgow to Baku – a departure from the traditional model where one or two countries host all matches.
To complicate matters further, the pandemic has forced European football’s governing body, UEFA, to postpone the tournament year, while restrictions on the number of fans in attendance led to a downward revision of revenue forecasts of at least 300 million euros, mainly due to the loss of tickets and money from Home.
With the action kicking off on Friday at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, where Italy faces Turkey, the threat of the virus will create logistical headaches for the duration of the month-long show.
Organizers of Euro 2020 – the tournament name has not changed, having already been printed on millions of merchandise items – have spent months negotiating with governments, football executives and medical officials for agree on strict protocols for travel arrangements and the organization of matches.
Result: € 10 million in additional costs for health and hygiene measures. UEFA expects to perform around 24,000 Covid-19 tests during the competition, a scheme that covers not only players, but anyone who might come into close contact: referees, team officials, even coach drivers .
The priority for the organizers will be to avoid an epidemic that could derail the tournament. “With the players infected, the teams cannot play – this is the worst case [scenario]”said Martin Kallen, general manager of UEFA’s events division.
“There is only one Ronaldo,” he added, referring to Portugal’s star player.
Efforts to host a huge sporting event amid the pandemic will be closely watched by organizers of the Tokyo Olympics, which is set to start just two weeks after the Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium in London on July 11.
The idea of a continent-wide football competition was imagined by Michel Platini, former captain of France and then president of UEFA.
He passed the concept off as a celebration of the world’s favorite game that reflects modern realities, with budget airlines and online booking sites making it easy for fans to participate.
The pandemic exposed the pride behind the plans. Platini resigned in 2016 following a ethical inquiry on an unregistered payment received from Fifa, the governing body of world football. His successor, Aleksander Ceferin, has had discussions about moving the tournament to a single country like Russia or England due to the pandemic.
It was decided that the initial plan was easier to implement than to undo the binding commercial contracts, although Ceferin said the experience of hosting the event across Europe is unlikely to be repeated.
With UEFA not wanting matches to take place on empty grounds, Dublin and Bilbao, two original host cities, have been forced to withdraw. Among those hosting matches, Budapest’s Puskas Arena will be the only one to fully open. Stadiums in St. Petersburg and Baku will operate at 50% capacity while others will be a quarter full.
Despite indications that the UK government could postpone plans to lift coronavirus restrictions on June 21, UEFA hopes the restrictions end in time for Wembley to host 90,000 for the final.
Unlike the Olympics, where organizers struck a deal with pharmaceutical company Pfizer to offer vaccines to athletes, UEFA decided that footballers’ vaccinations would be too difficult to administer before the tournament.
But club football competitions, like the Champions League, have been successful with similar protocols to those in place for Euro 2020.
Players will be required to take a Covid-19 test upon arrival at a team’s training camp, after which they will enter a ‘bubble’ cut off from the outside world. They will be tested every two to four days while being accommodated in hotels and areas closed to other customers.
Food and laundry will be handled by team workers rather than hotel staff. The stadiums will be divided into different “zones”, with the aim of preventing players from approaching anyone who has not undergone a strict testing regime.
“It’s not what you would choose but everyone faces these difficulties,” England manager Gareth Southgate said of the restrictions. “We respect the fact that so many people around the world couldn’t do their jobs like we did.
There is an acceptance that it may be impossible to keep the virus at bay. Sergio Busquets, captain of the Spanish team, tested positive for the virus last weekend, forcing the whole team to self-isolate.
If this is repeated during the tournament, UEFA will require matches to continue if at least 13 players from the 26-man squad from each country can play. Otherwise, teams may be forced to recruit youngsters or short-term reserve players to fill matches. Another option would be not to delay matches for more than two days.
There are also contingency plans to move the games to other cities if a Covid-19 outbreak forces a country to pull out of hosting them.
“The most likely scenario is that we will have happy fans and we will not have big problems with Covid,” said Daniel Koch, health adviser to the organizers of Euro 2020.
“This tournament will not change the outcome of the pandemic,” he added, but it could help “in a good way if people are happier”.