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Serie A eyes comeback as Italy sees the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel

11:00 BST 09/04/2020
Coronavirus Italy
The country has been devastated by the effects of the pandemic but talk of football resuming in May has provided a glimmer of hope to its people

Francesco Acerbi has plenty of perspective on football's importance in relation to life and death.

The Lazio defender developed a drinking problem after the death of his father, while he has twice overcome cancer.

So, while Acerbi is keener than most to see the 2019-20 Serie A season concluded, with his side presently second in the table, just a point behind leaders Juventus, he says "health is more important" at a time when Italy has been devastated by the effects of Covid-19.

“I know that only too well," the Italy international told La Repubblica earlier this week. "Trust me: the priority is to get out of this terrible period.

"We mustn’t hurry, we must respect the rules imposed by the government. It’s better to stay at home an extra week than hurry to start everything up again and then find ourselves in the tunnel for several more months."

That tunnel looks long and dark enough as it is right now. Indeed, it seems perverse to even be discussing football.

As the president of the Referees Association, Marcello Nicchi, told TWM Radio on Wednesday, "While there are still 600 people dying per day, we cannot talk about sport."

And yet that is precisely what so many Italians want to do. At least for a little while. Any brief distractions from the sad reality of life are welcome.

As Nicchi quite correctly pointed out, hundreds of people are still dying every day from Covid-19. And this, in spite of the fact that the country has been on lockdown for a month.

Consequently, it's hard to find anyone singing from their balconies anymore. Indeed, as we have seen in Naples, people are now more concerned with lowering baskets of food down to the streets below so that those hit hardest by the pandemic might at least come across something to eat.

And it is society's most vulnerable who are certainly suffering the most.

The virus has ravaged Italy's elderly population – the average age of the more than 17,000 deaths is 78.5 – and one of the tragic knock-on effects of the pandemic is that hospitals are now so overwhelmed that even some cancer patients are no longer guaranteed access to the services, facilities and treatment they require.

Inevitably, there has been a brutal backlash. One Bologna-based doctor told Goal that there have even been threats of legal action against medical staff who have been faced with the unenviable task of prioritising patients – all of whom are seriously ill.

Even those who have avoided infection but remain cooped up in their homes are struggling. Depression has become a major cause for concern, particularly for those who have lost their jobs during the crisis. In Torino, a 29-year-old man committed suicide after being made redundant at the end of March.

The state police have also updated YouPol – an app aimed at tackling bullying and drug-dealing at schools – so that children and teenagers can now report incidents of domestic violence too.

In short, nearly everyone in Italy is hurting now, in one way or another.

Amid all the death, devastation and despair, though, there are signs of hope; positive trends to be found in graphs and statistics.

The numbers of new cases and people in intensive care are falling. As is the dreaded daily count.

The mere fact that people can talk about when sport may resume is an encouraging sign in itself. The return of Serie A would mean that the lockdown restrictions were being loosened; it would signal the return of something resembling normality.

And for many millions of Italians, football is an integral part of their daily lives.

People aren't just lining up outside the supermarkets and pharmacies at the moment; there are also queues at the newsstands for the latest edition of the Gazzetta dello Sport.

And Wednesday morning's front page excitedly revealed details of the plans for "Phase 2" of the relaunch of the 2019-20 Serie A season.

The league was suspended after round 26, with the last game being played on March 9.

Italy will remain on a nationwide lockdown until April 13 and while the containment period is expected to be imminently extended, there is mounting optimism that players will be allowed to resume training on May 4 – obviously while being meticulously monitored by club doctors and observing the tightest of hygiene and social distancing guidelines.

Inter chief medic Professor Piero Volpi, who was hospitalised on March 27 after contracting coronavirus and is now at home recovering, has already expressed his concerns that the footballing community still "tends to underestimate the emergency we are still facing".

He is, rightly, preaching caution, pointing out in the Gazzetta that "in the case of a team that must play, there are 60 or 70 families to protect."

Even VAR could be done away with when Serie A returns because of the concerns over putting match officials in confined spaces. There has also been talk of playing all of the remaining fixtures behind closed doors in Rome, as the capital has been less affected by the virus.

Player safety is paramount, of course, but many of those who travelled home to be with their families during the lockdown – such as Inter duo Christian Eriksen and Ashley Young – are already back in Italy.

Meanwhile, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are expected to return after Easter, which is key, as both would be required to self-isolate for two weeks before being given the green light to train with their team-mates.

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte told the BBC on Thursday that "if scientists are in agreement, we might begin to relax some measures already by the end of this month" and three possible Serie A restart dates have already been mentioned: May 24, May 31 and June 7.

The hope is that the league could then be concluded before the end of July by scheduling two rounds a week but, even then, there are some concerns from a physical point of view.

"The thing that worries me most," Udinese's fitness coach Giovanni Brignardello told the Corriere dello Sport, "is the eventual relaunch, with players forced to return after just a few weeks of preparation, and then having to play every three days.

"Condensing many games into so few days creates a risk of excessive physical stress, so it's clear that such a schedule would increase the risk of injury."

Sampdoria president Massimo Ferrero has also questioned the point of staging games in empty stadia, quite understandably asking on Telenord, "A game without fans – what even is it?”

However, the majority of the game's stakeholders are united in their desire to finish the campaign both to maintain the integrity of the league – but also to ensure its very survival.

Many clubs would simply not be able to take the financial hit.

According to the Corriere, losing the remaining rounds of the season could cost Serie A sides up to €95 million (£83m/$103m) in gate receipts, while the final instalment of the league's TV rights deal with Sky Sport Italia and DAZN is due in May and totals €225m (£197m/$244m).

The decision made by 19 Serie A clubs to cut player wages by 30 per across the board – Juventus had already agreed a pay freeze with their squad – has provoked a furious response from the players' and coaches' unions.

Napoli, meanwhile, are reportedly set to suspend their non-playing staff for at least two months, underlining that financial implications of cancelling the campaign would be catastrophic and wide-reaching.

They could be long-lasting too. Brescia reiterated on Wednesday that they "would like to avoid playing again out of respect for the sad situation" in the city, which has been devastated by the pandemic.

Cynics have pointed out that it is in Brescia's best interests for the season to be cancelled, given they are presently in the relegation zone. Indeed, Frosinone, who were third in Serie B before the break, are threatening legal action if they are denied promotion to the top flight.

This is the ugly side of the beautiful game; the one that nobody ever wants to see, least of all in the current climate. Saving lives really is all that matters at the moment.

“It’s the hardest moment for those who haven’t lived through the last war,” Fiorentina boss Beppe Iachini told Gazzetta dello Sport.

“It will be impossible to forget the military trucks that took the coffins away from Bergamo and other cities in Lombardy. Families torn by pain without even being able to say goodbye to their loved ones.

“Health is the priority. Many people are still dying, so it’s difficult to think about football."

Even Acerbi acknowledged, though, that the return of football would be "a boost for the public, a sign of hope".

And they're both right.

There should be no rush to resume play, and there won't be; the Italian government will see to that, while the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina has already said that he would be willing to wait even until October to finish the season.

However, the pandemic has simultaneously hammered home the insignificance and significance of sport.

Having been forced to live apart for a month, people are now fully appreciating the importance of anything that brings them together and football, for all its faults, can be a unifying force.

Referees' chief Nicchi may not have wanted to talk about the game at this trying moment in time but he still couldn't help but think of the crucial role it has to play in Italy's healing process.

"I hope that after all this," he said, "people can realise the beauty of sport, how much we missed it and why we need to be kind to each other."

All of Italy is still trapped in that long, dark tunnel but at least we're starting to see some light at the end of it.