As coronavirus infection rates in Spain started to rise again recently, so did the anxiety among the leaders of Spain’s top soccer league.
Earlier this summer, La Liga had successfully navigated the conclusion of its pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 season, a campaign that had been mothballed for several months after the country imposed a national state of emergency. But as they returned to the field, they emerged into a changed world.
Finishing the final weeks of a suspended season had been one thing, a matter of strict rules, dire warnings and careful planning. Playing an entire new campaign — eight or nine months of weekly matches, with players and teams crisscrossing the country to play in more than a dozen cities — was already keeping league and team officials up nights.
Spain’s infection rate has recently started to climb alarmingly. On Wednesday, the country recorded 239 deaths, the highest daily number in months. On Friday, new lockdowns were ordered for about 850,000 residents of Madrid.
“The situation is much worse,” said Victor Martin, La Liga’s chief of staff.
So on Monday the league arranged a video conference with representatives of the teams from the country’s top two divisions. Staring into computer screens, Liga officials reiterated what they had been telling the teams privately in face to face meetings: If the league season is to run to completion, if its billion-dollar television contracts are to remain in place, if the players and the team executives and their staff members want to continue to extract livings from soccer and keep their families safe, there simply can be no let up, no relaxation in the precautions imposed to avoid the surge of coronavirus cases in Spain overwhelming the league, too.
They made their case in statistics and charts. But to spread the message, and to ensure players don’t tune out yet more warnings from yet more men in suits, they are enlisting a nontraditional coalition of messengers that includes individual fans who have recovered from Covid-19 and at least one concierge service that already provide them with luxury services. And in perhaps the most intriguing approach, they have even enlisted the players’ children.
To do so, La Liga has arranged for special coronavirus packs to be sent to players’ homes each week. The package includes fliers detailing health recommendations in a child-friendly format and brightly colored Liga-branded bracelets and key chains filled with hand sanitizer. The hope is that, by introducing and reinforcing good habits through the players’ children and their families, everyone will benefit.
“Awareness, awareness, awareness,” Martin said, to explain the idea. “We are very concerned because of the situation in Spain, there are so many infections, and kids, who are mostly asymptomatic, could come back home and they can infect the players and no one realizes.”
Last week’s conference call with the teams painted a stark picture of Spain’s worrisome state. Armed with slides detailing the worsening epidemiological situation in 25 cities and regions, Liga officials emphasized that in every case, the environment that teams were returning to in their home cities was starkly different from the one they played in between June and July, when a first wave of coronavirus cases had largely been brought under control. One chart showed enormous tower blocks depicting the rising daily caseloads contrasted with barely perceptible bumps when the league resumed play in midsummer.
To address the new reality, La Liga told the teams that it was imposing some of its strictest virus protocols to date. Perhaps the most significant of the new measures relates to each teams’ most sacred space: the locker room.
This season, locker rooms in La Liga will be almost completely off limits, with players encouraged to change at home. Showers will be forbidden, and team talks that sometimes stretched for up to an hour before and after matches and training sessions will now be limited to only a few minutes, with a maximum of 10 minutes allowed at halftime.
“They won’t have time for a full mass any longer,” Martin said, trying to make light of a difficult conversation with teams. “They will have to make do with a short prayer.”
The decision came after health officials quickly identified locker rooms as a significant vector of transmission, a fact underlined by an outbreak that overwhelmed the second division team Fuenlabrada in July, with 28 players and officials infected at the same time.
In the brief break between the end of last season and the start of the current campaign on Sept. 12, teams have registered 126 positive cases, according to La Liga. But no team has seen cases devolve into a mass-spread situation, a crisis averted, league officials said, in part because of the imposition of the locker room ban at the start of preseason training and games.
But the league is now expanding its focus on athletes’ home lives, too, with a particular emphasis on their children, who are now back in school, exposed to hundreds of their peers each day. In addition to the gift packs sent to the players’ children at their homes, teams will arrange for players, who until now have been recipients of coronavirus messaging, to appear via video conferences at schools around Spain, including those their own children attend.
A separate effort is being carried out in association with a company called Club del Deportista, a lifestyle and luxury concierge service that for the past 16 years has catered to the needs and whims of millionaire athletes and their families. Among the promotions for high-end clothing lines, car services and private dining experiences it usually offers, the company is now sharing the league’s latest coronavirus updates and reminders of the need to remain vigilant.
The idea, La Liga’s Martin said, was to communicate with players through a channel that is already popular with them — this spring, panicked players used Club del Deportista to source scarce supplies of hand sanitizer, masks and coronavirus tests — and not to bombard them with months and months of official league messaging.
The players, a company official said, are already engaging.
“They are also people, they have families, they also feel unsafe, and they are very worried,” Gonzalo Moreno, a partner at Club del Deportista, said in an interview. “Football is very important, they have big salaries, so they are not only worried about being healthy but also about the business. Without it, they don’t have work.”
The league is aware there could be cases of players’ not following the new rules. Last season, it opened 12 disciplinary cases over breaches of its virus protocols, including one against a group of Sevilla players who had posted photos to social media of themselves and their partners attending a barbecue during the nationwide lockdown.
But it also laid out for the teams the consequences of failure. Under the new rules, teams must be able to field a minimum of five players from their first-team roster and eight from their reserve squad to avoid a postponed game. Teams will be permitted only one postponement out of the first 30 matches in the season; any more after that will result in forfeits. “Clubs recognize this could jeopardize their season,” said Javier Morente, a member of the cabinet of La Liga’s president, Javier Tebas.
To drive home the point more personally, La Liga also has created video messages from fans of each club. In the videos, men and women, young and old, tell the players on their favorite teams about how infection affected them, and warn them not to take any chances.
“If you look after yourself,” one fan says in the clip, “you look after the hopes of millions of fans.”