By Tariq Panja and Rory Smith
Those final few minutes, just before kickoff, have been mapped out with almost military precision. At exactly 8:50 p.m. local time, a disinfected Champions League match ball will be placed on a ceremonial plinth. At 8:53 p.m., the players will leave their locker rooms. The teams will enter the field, separately, no more than 2 1/2 minutes later.
At 8:57 p.m., as the strains of the Champions League anthem blare out of the stadium’s speakers, the players will face the stands — all but empty — while maintaining social distancing: a meter between each player. Team photos are at 8:57 p.m. and 50 seconds, but the photojournalists do not have long to take them: the coin toss is at 8:58.
And then, at 9 p.m. local time Wednesday, European soccer will enter uncharted territory. After months of planning, weeks of uncertainty, hours of meetings and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of protocols and instructions, the strangest, most intense Champions League in history will finally begin its (belated) push to the final.
Rather than providing a slow-burn climax to the European season, with the final three rounds of games held over almost two months and staged across the continent, the Champions League, the most coveted prize in club soccer, will be settled in only 10 days and in one city: Lisbon, Portugal.
If, that is, the coronavirus allows it. Already one team is facing a possible outbreak:
reported Sunday that two members of its traveling party had tested positive.
Per the rules, the two players — Angel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko — were isolated from the rest of the team, and on Monday Atlético announced that it would return to training and continue its preparations for a Thursday quarterfinal against RB Leipzig. That, too, is allowed; even amid a locker-room outbreak, a team can keep playing as long as the club can field 11 starters and two reserves who test negative.
The entire knockout round, in fact, is an abrupt break from history, and not one UEFA — the competition’s organizer and European soccer’s governing body — is eager to repeat. Nor is it quite as pure a Champions League as anyone might have hoped, since there are vast differences in the preparations of the eight teams that have made it. Paris St.-Germain, which plays the opening match against Italy’s Atalanta on Wednesday, has played only two competitive games since March. Bayern Munich had a monthlong break between the German Cup final and its meeting with Chelsea on Saturday, a layoff that Oliver Kahn, the club’s forthcoming chief executive, worries might be a disadvantage.
The teams from England, Italy and Spain, meanwhile, might complain of a lack of rest. The Serie A season only finished on the first weekend of August, after a grueling schedule of 10 games in little more than six weeks. The Premier League campaign ended in the last week of July.
And then, of course, there are the myriad demands being placed on the teams to ensure the tournament can play to a finish. “I have a feeling that whichever team handles all of these fears and responsibilities the best has a big chance to win,” Kahn said.
Those requirements touch almost every aspect of each team’s preparation. Last week, representatives of all 12 clubs still involved in the competition at that stage joined an online call with UEFA to go over what the tournament would look like.
They were presented with three sets of slides, amounting to more than 130 pages — as well as being sent the 31-page “Return To Play” protocol governing almost every aspect of their stay in Portugal.
As well as detailing where each team will stay and train in the city, the slides informed them that they would be afforded 210 bottles of water, as well as 90 bottles of Gatorade, every day at their appointed training facility; that they can ask for up to 50 kilograms of ice to be made available during training sessions and games; and that they must supply not only photos but the dimensions of their team buses, if they were planning on providing their own.
They were presented with maps of the stadiums they will use, detailing where, precisely, their players will be allowed to warm up. So-called “fast feet” exercises must take place away from the playing surface, and the area in front of each goalmouth must not be touched. Players will not be permitted to perform warm downs on the field at all, to protect the turf as much as possible for other matches.
They were walked through the testing schedule for each of their players — one before setting off for Lisbon, one immediately upon arrival, one the day before each game. The results will be returned to them no more than six hours before kickoff — to ensure that the competition does not see an outbreak of the sort that has disrupted several major sports in the United States.