There will be no smoke engulfing the doorway of the hotel Lebreros and no crowd of supporters, squashed in and shouting, waiting for the players to walk through them like gladiators into the ring. No fireworks as the bus edges its way through the flares to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, one of the noisiest stadiums in Spain on its noisiest night.
There will be no bus at all unless one of the managers decides to park one. There will not be thousands of fans at training or any at the match but at least there will be a match, football returning behind closed doors after 93 days in limbo.
“Playing without fans is as sad as dancing with your sister,” the Spain manager, Luis Enrique, said. Everyone knows that by now but there may be no fixture that brings it home quite like this. It will have to be brought home: watching live will be barely two hundred people.
La Liga returns on Thursday with the Seville derby, the city’s first game since Betis beat Real Madrid 4km away and a lifetime ago. It is the first of 110 matches in which everything is still in play – the title, Europe, relegation – and it is some way to begin, a celebration. Back with a bang. Or without one.
The last time Sevilla and Betis met, Sergio Reguilón declared: “I’m blown away; this is wild”; the last time they met at the Sánchez Pizjuán a huge banner read “Seville is passion”. It was Easter and it was the derby – two events postponed amid the pandemic. They have missed it but this game – like all the others – will be missing something. If any game is defined by atmosphere, noise, the people, it is this one and there will be none of that.
Being here at all is a victory, though; it may even be football’s salvation. To return is to win, says the slogan La Liga has used once it was clear that it would. The president, Javier Tebas, had warned of the dire consequences of not doing so. The pandemic has hit hard anyway but completing the season, even without fans, protects the TV income clubs depend on. The league’s calculations predicted a €350m loss by doing it this way; had the season been abandoned the figure was just short of €1bn. This, Tebas repeated, is an industry that accounts for 1.37% of Spain’s GDP and indirectly employs 800,000 people, one that needed to be protected.
That point was impressed on people in power and the resumption, which comes earlier than some had anticipated, is Tebas’ success above all. In the opening days of the crisis, familiar fights between the federation and the league meant few were optimistic but he has been bullish and energetic.
An eight-hour meeting called by Irene Lozano, the secretary of state for sport, and attended by Tebas and the president of the federation, Luis Rubiales, brought progress in mid-April. Tebas promised economic support – €50m shared between the state’s sporting body and the RFEF – and got a commitment from the government to help bring back the league.
From there momentum gathered, Tebas’s determination dragging everyone to this point. There was a single voice from the league and it belonged to him. In the final month it has been heard on TV each Sunday night, almost like he was addressing the nation, which in a way he was. There was a unity of purpose, a clarity, that made the contrast to the Premier League striking.
Detailed protocols were drawn up for the return to training and then to matches, always dependent on the support of the health ministry. A green light to carry out tests was the start of a process that brought training back and brings us here, while the government’s parallel plan for the relaxing of the lockdown fits with the football.
The league gained concessions, too. Although the state’s sporting body, the CSD, blocked Real Sociedad’s attempts to get back to training early, its protocols pushed for the return of professional sport. It was going further than the league had, although without the league it might not have gone far at all. The league’s protocols for training and matches proved more flexible and less strict than initially planned and the process accelerated. Players were not forced into training-camp accommodation, for example, and clubs went into full training together, regardless of which phase of the lockdown their region was in.
And then on 23 May, the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, gave permission for football to return from 8 June. It was time, he said, to get the “ball rolling”. Although some supporters’ groups have protested against the restart, declaring this is just business not football for as long as they are locked out, most are pleased. Likewise the few fears made public by players have been largely allayed. And if the first, surreal training sessions were like “being in a movie”, as the Sevilla striker Luuk de Jong put it, everything now feels more natural.
Beyond football, life is too, the contagion curve is heading sharply downwards and Spain has reached days without deaths. The game’s return helps hasten and deepen a sense of cautious recovery.
Without fans it may not feel entirely normal but TV coverage will offer the option of crowd noise and computer-generated images of supporters in the stands. Supporters in the flesh may even follow and far sooner than expected. Tebas had warned clubs not to expect to have fans in stadiums until after Christmas but the Las Palmas president last week suggested that clubs in provinces now in Phase III of the de-escalation could seek permission from regional health authorities to let in fans. The CSD said no, citing the integrity of the competition, but Tebas supports the plan, even if only some clubs can take advantage. Even some journalists will be allowed in: six per game, for now.
On the pitch there is everything to play for and the whole thing will be done quickly. There are 11 rounds in five weeks, games every day for almost 40 days. Barcelona are two points ahead of Real Madrid. There are only five points between third and sixth (Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Getafe, Valencia). Below that, at least three more teams have European ambitions. And there could be as many as eight, maybe more, concerned about relegation.
Nothing is certain. How will teams react to the break? How will they cope with the compressed schedule? To playing without fans? To playing away from home, in the case of Levante and Real who have moved out to allow for building works on their grounds? Will five subs change things? Will the heat? What will it mean for Luis Suárez and Eden Hazard to get an unexpected second chance after injury? How, above all, will it feel? Thursday will provide the first glimpse, a day earlier than announced, and there could be no bigger test of what’s being called the “new normality”.
“Sadly, I won’t be able to live the madness that everyone has told me about,” Reguilón has said. “I’ll miss that atmosphere in the team hotel, in the stadium, the chance to live this day with our fans. But despite it all, I’m sure they’ll support us from their homes, like they always do.”