The stage was set for one of the biggest games on the Serie A calendar – Juventus against Napoli, historic rivals from opposite ends of Italy’s boot. The wealthiest team in the country, fresh from their ninth consecutive title, against opponents who have consistently outperformed their budget to produce some of the most entertaining and effective football on the peninsula, finishing as runners-up in three of the past five years.
The sub-plots were enticing. Could Andrea Pirlo, in his third-ever game as a manager, answer the questions posed by his former teammate Gennaro Gattuso? Who would shine brighter between an ageing Cristiano Ronaldo and Napoli’s club-record signing Victor Osimhen?
By the time Juventus’s players disembarked the team bus before kick-off, however, such questions had been put to one side. As the club’s Twitter account posted a starting XI and fans took up seats in the stands, a nation wondered why this stage was still being set at all, when everyone knew that the show itself could not go ahead?
Napoli’s players were still back home in Naples, 700 miles away. Two of them – Piotr Zielinski and Elif Elmas – had tested positive for Covid-19 during the week, prompting local health authorities to ban the entire squad from travelling to Turin. Or, at least, that was the explanation reasserted by Napoli’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, in a letter on Sunday afternoon. The Lega Serie A – governing body for Italy’s top flight – had earlier released a statement contesting the detail of the health authority’s ruling and questioning its jurisdiction.
Professional football was supposed to be exempt from national regulations which require anyone who has been in close contact with an infected person to quarantine for 14 days. A protocol agreed between the Italian Football federation (the FIGC) and the government’s technical-scientific committee in June allows players to resume training and take part in matches as long as their own results continue to come back negative from mandatory tests.
It was an approach that allowed Serie A to complete the interrupted 2019-20 season without major hiccups after play resumed this summer. Already in this campaign Torino had played Atalanta after a positive case, and Milan were able to take on Crotone despite infections for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Leo Duarte.
Over the past week, however, the risk to this strategy has been laid bare. Two players from Napoli’s previous opponent, Genoa, tested positive for Covid-19 before their game on 27 September. Mattia Perin and Lasse Schöne were left out of the travelling squad, but a further 15 teammates, along with several more members of staff, have since been diagnosed with the virus as well. Napoli fear a similar delayed outbreak within their own ranks.
Nevertheless, they failed to persuade the Lega, or Juventus, that Sunday’s game ought to be postponed. The Bianconeri took steps to protect their interests by showing up at Allianz Stadium even when they knew their opponents wouldn’t. The “business-as-usual” approach to social media may have been designed to strengthen their hand for any litigation to follow.
Under league rules, a no-show should result in Napoli being handed a 3-0 defeat plus further punishments on top – potentially including a points deduction. “The sporting rules are clear, if a team does not show up, it will face disciplinary sanctions,” said the Juventus president, Andrea Agnelli, during an interview with Sky Sports. He confirmed he had received a message from De Laurentiis during the week asking for the game to be rescheduled, but insisted his team would have played if the shoe were on the other foot. Agnelli noted that two members of Juventus’s non-playing staff had tested positive over the weekend, saying that the club followed the FIGC protocol – moving players and coaches into an isolation “bubble” at the club-owned J Hotel before making a fresh round of tests.
Speaking on behalf of Napoli later that evening, the lawyer Mattia Grassani made it clear that his clients would appeal against any attempt to have the game ruled as a walkover. In his account, the Partenopei had already boarded players on to a bus to the airport when they received letters from local health authorities in two separate Neapolitan municipalities, as well as another from the head of the regional cabinet in Campania, instructing them not to travel.
“To play the match, Napoli would have had to violate a law of the state and risk a criminal charge,” said Grassani, before highlighting the public health risk of players sharing public spaces at the airport and at their hotel in Turin. “A football match cannot be placed ahead of the health of tens and hundreds of people.”
An initial ruling from the sporting justice is expected as soon as Tuesday, but it is easy to imagine this case dragging on much longer in the courts. Napoli believe state authority should override sporting regulations. Juventus’s position does not necessarily contradict that, relying instead on the fact that the FIGC’s protocols were drawn up together with the central government in the first place.
Their dispute plays out against a shifting national backdrop, as coronavirus cases across the country continue to rise. Campania – the region where Naples is situated – has experienced the biggest spike in new infections over recent days.
The government’s minister for sport, Vincenzo Spadafora, acknowledged on Sunday that: “Football is not immune, the situation has changed and the local authorities must monitor things.” The deputy health minister Pierpaolo Sileri suggested that the FIGC’s protocol may need to be reviewed.
For now, the show must go on. The hope is that an empty stage in Turin will remain an anomaly, not a sign of more challenging times to come.