By ROB HARRIS
The Associated Press
Germany’s decision that soccer can return this month provided encouragement for players and teams across Europe on Wednesday that the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic could soon be coming to an end.
With COVID-19 infections declining, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that the return of the top two leagues could be included in the loosening of lockdown measures.
However, supporters will be locked out of stadiums for some time to come across Europe to contain the coronavirus while there is no vaccine.
The Bundesliga is now set to be the first major men’s soccer competition to resume in Europe on Friday, May 15 after the shutdown of the sport across the continent in March. The Belgian, French and Dutch leagues were all canceled prematurely after governments decided it is not safe for sport to staged yet — even without fans.
“This ensures that the sporting decisions are made on the pitch and not in the boardroom,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chairman of Bayern Munich, which has a four-point lead over Borussia Dortmund with nine games remaining.
“Let’s pick up where you left off, Erling,” Dortmund said in a tweet linking to a compilation of goals by teenage sensation Erling Haaland.
Croatia also announced plans Wednesday to bring back soccer on May 30 and Turkey said it was aiming for June 12 and still hopes to host the postponed Champions League final in Istanbul in August.
The English Premier League and Spain’s LaLiga hope to start up again in June but are yet to announce a date.
“The return of the Bundesliga is great news for the football industry and marks the way for the staggered return of football that will not be complete until the return of fans to the stadiums,” LaLiga President Javier Tebas said. “We are working so that LaLiga will resume soon. Yesterday and today we started the path with medical tests. This is good news for European football and for the return to the new normal after this crisis.”
The new normal meant players wearing face masks and gloves at Barcelona’s disinfected training facility to undergo medical checks, including COVID-19 tests. They will only be allowed back for individual training sessions once the tests come back negative. Then daily tests will be required.
When the league was paused in March, Barcelona held a two-point lead over Real Madrid with 11 games remaining.
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane was seen wearing protective gear as he reunited with his players on Wednesday as they also underwent health checks. Across the Spanish capital, Atlético Madrid midfielder Marcos Llorente relished the idea of returning to training soon after two months in lockdown.
“We had never been away from a ball for so long,” Llorente said.
Unlike their male counterparts, female players won’t be returning to action soon. Barcelona is expected to be declared champion of the women’s league today after the federation proposed ending the season. No teams will be relegated but the top two from the second division will be promoted.
Neither the men’s nor women’s topflight in England have been canceled yet.
But Premier League clubs are divided over “Project Restart,” with Aston Villa becoming the latest to publicly oppose using neutral stadiums for their remaining 10 games.
Villa chief executive Christian Purslow does not want to give up home advantage — even when playing in an empty stadium — as his team tries to climb out of the relegation zone.
But he said the protocols are not even in place yet to allow teams to resume matches.
“Until we crack the code of making our great contact sports safe,” Purslow told talkSPORT radio, “then the conversation we’re having is hypothetical.”
In Italy, Inter Milan postponed the return of players for individual training because not all have been tested for the coronavirus.
Torino announced that an unnamed player tested positive for COVID-19 after the first run of medical tests were carried out on the Serie A team as it returns to training.
But Juventus forward Paulo Dybala has now received two negative tests results after reports he still had the disease after several weeks of tests.