Two European football giants, Atlético Madrid and Chelsea, will meet in the Champions League on Tuesday. The side of this highly anticipated game? Bucharest, Romania.
On Wednesday, Manchester City will play against the German team Borussia Mönchengladbach. The game will take place in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where English champions Liverpool defeated German RB Leipzig last week.
In the Europa League, the second-rate club championship on the continent, neutral locations are now almost as widespread as home games. Last week Spanish and English teams played in Italy and teams from Norway and Germany met in Spain. On Thursday, a week after London club Arsenal’s draw against Portuguese Benfica in Rome, the teams will meet again in the second leg of their home game near Athens.
The pandemic devastated international sports schedules for a year, and that chaos continues to affect football’s biggest club tournaments. The reasons – government regulations, travel restrictions and quarantine rules – vary across Europe. In some countries, teams are still allowed to travel to and from their opponents’ stadiums without any problems. In other countries, countries have blocked access to visitors from entire nations or imposed strict rules that make such travel impractical in a football season when teams often play two or three games a week.
UEFA, the European football association that runs the competitions, has decided that restrictions that adversely affect a match should be played in a neutral location where travel is allowed. But the decision to play knockout games in seemingly random locations has created confusion and not too little grumbling.
Real Sociedad, for example, played their home game against Manchester United in Turin, Italy last week but will play the second leg at United at Old Trafford on Thursday.
“It does not seem conclusive to me that we play on a neutral field as the home team and there as visitors,” said Roberto Olabe, Real Sociedad football director. told Basque newspaper. “I want the return to take place on neutral ground or, like last year, UEFA set a single venue for one game within a game.”
The displeasure wasn’t universal. Both Hungary and Romania, whose teams almost never go into depth in major European competitions, were eager to bring the games to their countries – even if in many cases they still have to be played behind closed doors.
“A game played in the most prestigious European interclub competition is a major sporting event. We offered our support to the organizers as soon as this possibility was raised,” said Romanian Football Association President Razvan Burleanu. said Agence France-Presse.
Playing some games in neutral locations has made the tournament’s first tiebreaker, the rule of away goals, a paradox. When a home and away game ends with neither team scoring total goals, the team with the most goals outside the home team will normally advance. The logic is that in a hostile environment it will be a little harder to score away from home and should be given a small bonus.
But home is not the same for everyone. Chelsea, for example, will not play their away game in Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, but on neutral ground in Bucharest. However, all goals scored there are only considered away goals for the English team.
Atlético will then have to defend or level a difference in the goal line on Chelsea’s home field in London next month.
For the game between Benfica and Arsenal, the away goals rule seemed even more puzzling. The first leg in Rome ended in a 1-1 draw when Arsenal were considered the away team. Benfica will be the away team in Greece but if that leg ends in a draw with higher scores – 2-2 for example – Benfica will advance with more away goals.
(Some European football traditions seem immune to the coronavirus: Serbian club Red Star Belgrade apologized last week after some of their fans broke into a closed stadium because of a Europa League tie against Milan and Canada The racially abused Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovicwho is of Bosnian descent.)
However, football’s planning problems may not be over. The ongoing reach of the pandemic has challenged plans to host the European Championships this summer in 12 cities across Europe. Traditionally, the event was a less sprawling affair hosted by one country or two neighboring countries.
Given the travel complications uncovered by club competitions, the idea of national teams flying across Europe seems foolhardy or downright dangerous. There are already calls to move the entire tournament to a single county, probably England, where the two semi-finals and the final are to take place.
Over the weekend, the Sunday Times of London reported that the UK government had informed UEFA that this was the case ready and willing to stand as the host of the entire schedule of games, though The country’s health minister immediately denied this report.