By Simon Evans
BELFAST (Reuters) – FIFA president Gianni Infantino has said March’s international soccer matches could be threatened by the coronavirus but was hopeful that this year’s European Championship tournament and the Olympic Games will go ahead unaffected.
On Friday, six countries reported their first cases of the virus and the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its global spread and impact risk alert to “very high”.
The spread of the virus has already hit sporting events and on Thursday Italian club Inter Milan were forced to play their Europa League home match against Bulgarian side Ludogorets at San Siro behind closed doors.
A number of international fixtures, including the Euro 2020 playoffs as well as friendlies, are scheduled for the final week of March. Asked whether he would consider halting those games, Infantino said nothing was out of the question.
“I wouldn’t exclude anything at this moment. I hope we will never have to get into this direction. I think it will be difficult in any case to make a global ban because the situation (in each counry) is really different,” he told reporters.
“The health of people is much more important than any football game. The health is beyond anything and that’s why we have to look at the situation and hope that it (the coronavirus outbreak) will decrease rather than increase.
“At the moment it looks like it is still increasing. If games have to be postponed or played without spectators until it is over then we have to go through that,” added the head of soccer’s world governing body.
Euro 2020 is scheduled to begin on June 12 and will see an unprecedented amount of international travel with the tournament being held in 12 cities in 12 different European countries.
“I think the Euros will take place in June. Before that we have many matches at international level with lots of traveling involved as well so I think we have to monitor the situation and those in charge, the government, the institutions they also take decisions on what is allowed and what isn’t,” said Infantino.
“We don’t have to panic. I am not personally worried as well. But we have to look at it seriously. We can’t underestimate and say it’s nothing but we don’t have to overreact and panic. We have to follow the instructions given by the authorities,” he added.
The other big soccer tournament on the horizon is at the Olympic Games which is due to be held in Tokyo in July. Infantino said he had not recently discussed the matter with the International Olympic Committee.
“We all hope the Olympic Games will take place as planned and that we can travel safely to Japan in the summer,” he said.
The FIFA chief added that he did not believe closed-door matches without fans were a solution to the problem.
“I don’t think it is sustainable but that is my personal view. Every competition organizer has to decide what is best for him. In the short term it can be a solution in order to move on but you cannot imagine a few months of a competition with several matches played behind closed doors.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Ken Ferris)