Two European football giants, Atlético Madrid and Chelsea, will meet on Tuesday in the Champions League. The page of this much anticipated game? Bucharest, Romania.
On Wednesday, Manchester City will play against the German team Borussia Mönchengladbach. That match will be in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, where English champions Liverpool beat German RB Leipzig last week.
In the Europa League, the second-league club championship on the continent, neutral spots are now almost as common as home games. Last week, the Spanish and English teams played in Italy, and the teams of Norway and Germany met in Spain. On Thursday, a week after London club Arsenal drew against Portuguese side Benfica in Rome, the teams will meet again in a rematch of a homeless match and a home match against Athens.
The pandemic has ravaged international sports schedules for a year, and that chaos continues to affect the biggest football club tournaments. The reasons – government decrees, travel restrictions and quarantine rules – vary across Europe. In some countries, teams are still allowed to travel to and from their opponents’ stadiums without difficulty. In others, states have blocked entry to visitors from across nations or have made tough rules that make such trips impractical in the football season when teams often play two or three games a week.
UEFA, the European football governing body that runs the competitions, has decided that if restrictions adversely affect any match, it will be played in a neutral place where travel is allowed. But the decision to play knockout games in seemingly randomly selected places led to confusion and considerable grumbling.
For example, Real Sociedad played a “home” game against Manchester United last week in Turin, Italy, but the return match will be played at United’s home, Old Trafford, on Thursday.
“It doesn’t seem consistent to me that as a home team we play on neutral ground, and as visitors we do that there,” Roberto Olabe, Real Real Sociedad football director, he told the Basque newspaper. “I would like the comeback to also take place on neutral ground, or for UEFA to determine one place to equalize in one game as was the case last year.”
Dissatisfaction was not universal. Both Hungary and Romania, whose teams almost never go deep into major European competitions, were eager to bring matches to their countries – even if in many cases they still have to play behind closed doors.
“The match played in the most prestigious European inter-club competition is a big sporting event, and we provided support to the organizers as soon as this opportunity arose,” said Romanian Football Association President Razvan Burleanu. he told the France-Presse agency.
Playing some games in neutral locations turned the first tiebreaker for the tournament, the rule of away goals, into something paradoxical. Usually, if the equalization of hosts and guests ends if no team gains an advantage in the total number of goals, the team with the most goals away from home progresses. The logic is that scoring goals from home is a little harder in a hostile environment and you should get a small bonus.
But home is not the same for everyone. For example, Chelsea play away not at the Wanda Metropolitano Atletico stadium, but on a neutral ground in Bucharest. But all goals scored will still count as away goals for the English team only.
Atlético will then have to defend or make up for any difference in the score line at Chelsea’s home ground in London next month.
For the Benfica-Arsenal match, the away goal rule seemed even more enigmatically arbitrary. The first game in Rome ended with the result 1: 1, when Arsenal was considered the visiting team. Benfica will be the away team in Greece, but if that leg ends in a draw – say, 2-2 – Benfica will advance by scoring more away goals.
(Some European football traditions seem immune to the coronavirus: Serbian club Red Star Belgrade was forced to apologize last week after some of its fans stormed the indoor stadium for a Europa League draw against Milan and racially abused Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which is of Bosnian origin.)
Football schedule issues may not be over after all. The constant scope of the pandemic has called into question plans to set up a European championship this summer in 12 cities across Europe. Traditionally, the event was less widespread, and was hosted by one country or a couple of neighbors.
Given the travel complications that club competitions have exposed, the idea of national teams flying around Europe seems insane or downright dangerous. There are already calls to move the entire tournament to one county, probably England, which is already slated to host two semi-finals and a final.
Over the weekend, the London Sunday Times reported that the British government had told UEFA that it had ready and willing although it would host the entire game schedule the country’s health minister immediately denied the report.