Ligue 1 returns on Friday with the threat of the coronavirus looming large over the start of a 2020-21 season that will get underway with a reduced line-up of matches.
Three of the league’s biggest clubs will not play on the opening weekend, with Paris Saint-Germain to contest the Champions League final in Lisbon on Sunday.
Lyon are also resting having featured in the final stages of the Champions League and Marseille are dealing with a rash of COVID-19 cases that led to their match with Saint-Etienne being postponed.
The match at the Stade Velodrome was supposed to be Friday’s curtain raiser for a season being broadcast under a new TV deal set to bring record revenues to clubs living on scraps for the past five months.
The league’s five-year contract with Spain’s Mediapro gives the 20 clubs 1.153 billion euros ($1.37 billion) each season, a welcome boost to the coffers after last season was suspended in March and then curtailed while Europe’s other big leagues restarted and finished their campaigns.
However fans will instead be greeted by Bordeaux hosting Nantes on Friday, a slightly less attractive prospect than the Europa League final taking place later that evening and a French club potentially becoming champions of Europe for the first time since 1993 over the weekend.
The postponement of Marseille’s clash with Saint-Etienne to September 17 comes after four players among Andre Villas-Boas’s squad tested positive for COVID-19 as a second wave of the pandemic threatens France.
On Wednesday Toulouse became the first French city to declare face masks compulsory outdoors in a bid to halt the quickening spread of the virus.
France’s third-most populated city Lyon said masks would become compulsory in certain areas from Saturday, a measure already in place in capital city Paris.
Meanwhile more than half of the top division’s clubs have recorded cases of the disease — totalling some 40 players — jeopardising their preparation and causing the cancellation of many pre-season friendlies.
One of those players is Nantes captain Abdoulaye Toure, whose side had recorded seven virus cases since the end of last month but will currently play the season’s opening match.
On Wednesday Montpellier announced their seventh case of the pandemic, the club’s top scorer from last season Andy Delort, while Nimes’ opening match with Brest on Sunday could also be postponed after they registered four new cases this week.
“The clubs are seriously worried,” one Ligue 1 director told AFP.
“We are worried about having not been able to take the car out of the garage for three months and when we do finally get back on the road having to stop every 100 kilometres.”
Potential for ‘major harm’
A 57-page medical and health protocol set up by the League is designed to limit stoppages and reduce contamination as much as possible.
Players will be tested two to three days before each match and a game should be postponed as soon as four cases are found at the same club within an eight-day period. This is precisely what happened to Marseille and could happen to Nimes.
“Even with the best will, the best medical system, the best controls, we have risks which do not depend on us and which can cause us major harm”, warned one club president.
Notwithstanding fears over the virus, some fans will be allowed to attend matches, with a government-mandated maximum of 5,000 people including the teams and coaching and organisational staff permitted to enter stadiums.
However fan groups at several clubs said the rules mean they will not go to matches.
The virus worries have overshadowed what has been billed as an exciting new season following France’s exploits in the Champions League and a number of clubs, including Lyon, Marseille and Monaco looking to re-establish themselves as forces with which to be reckoned.
However PSG will take some stopping after they cruised to a domestic treble last season and aim for a 10th league title that would draw them level with faded former powerhouse Saint-Etienne.