France kicks off fans’ return to elite European football

14 Jul 2020

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LE HAVRE: Paris St Germain’s Neymar (L) shoots through the legs of Le Havre’s Romain Basque during their friendly at the Stade Oceane.—AFP
LE HAVRE: Paris St Germain’s Neymar (L) shoots through the legs of Le Havre’s Romain Basque during their friendly at the Stade Oceane.—AFP

LE HAVRE: For the first time since the coronavirus shut down sports and chased away spectators, fans returned on Sunday to elite European football, turning out in their thousands to see Paris St Germain’s superstars back on a field.

For their return to work, PSG’s marquee attacking duo of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe sported face masks in red, white and blue PSG colours on their way into the arena and wore messages of thanks for health workers on their kit.

“Now it’s for real ... we’re back,” Mbappe tweeted before kickoff against Le Havre. The exhibition match in the Normandy port city was the first encounter in front of fans to feature one of Europes elite clubs since the outbreak erupted.

Only 5,000 people were allowed inside Le Havre’s 25,000-seat Stade Oceane to see the French League 2 club take on PSG’s star-studded squad, with Neymar and Mbappe in the starting XI.

PSG showed little mercy on the field with Mauro Icardi and Neymar both scoring twice. That rare sound of real fans erupting into cheers at their team scoring was heard nine times as PSG beat Le Havre 9-0.

Upper tiers of seating were empty. Spectators had to wear face masks to get into the arena, although many then took them off once settled in their seats. Families and friends sat together in groups but groups stayed separated. Ball carriers wore masks and gloves. Loudspeakers broadcast appeals for social distancing. Pitch-side photographers were made to step with their shoes into trays of disinfectant.

“It is a victory for French football, sport in general,” said outgoing Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu who was at the match. “I am delighted that football in France can resume in a popular way, with more people in the stadiums. It is the only country in western Europe to be able to do this.”

Unlike Germany, England, Italy and Spain, France abandoned its league season in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, but when the other four countries resumed their leagues, they did so behind closed doors.

Neymar and Icardi each scored twice and Mbappe once before PSG made 10 changes leading 5-0 at half time. Pablo Sarabia, with two, Idrissa Gueye and Arnaud Kalimuendo scored in the first 15 minutes of the second half to complete the rout as PSG started to warm up for a busy few weeks in late July and early August.

PSG are due to play Saint-Etienne in the French Cup final on July 24 and Lyon in the French League Cup final on July 31 before resuming their Champions League campaign away to Atalanta on August 12.

Both French finals will be at the 80,000-seat Stade de France in Paris.

Maracineanu said the attendance limit would be reviewed on July 18 and would consider adjusting the limit so it was proportional with the size of the stadium.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2020