Two European soccer giants, Atlético Madrid and Chelsea, will meet in the Champions League on Tuesday. The site of this much anticipated game? Bucharest, Romania.
On Wednesday, Manchester City will play the German team Borussia Mönchengladbach. That game will be in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, in the stadium where Liverpool beat Germany’s RB Leipzig last week.
In the Europa League, the continent’s second-tier club championship, neutral sites are now almost as common 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 the London club Arsenal played to a draw against Portugal’s Benfica in Rome, the teams will meet again in the second leg of their not-home-and-home tie near Athens.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc with international sports schedules for a year, and that chaos continues to have an impact on soccer’s biggest club tournaments, changing not only the concept of the “home” match but also the value of all-important “away” goals.
On Tuesday, the complications reached qualification matches for the 2022 World Cup for the first time when Norway’s soccer federation announced that the country would play its first “home” qualifier, against Turkey next month, at a neutral venue in Málaga, Spain. The federation called it “a pity” that the team could not play on home soil.
The reasons behind all the moves — government edicts, travel restrictions and quarantine rules — vary around Europe. In some countries, teams are still allowed to travel to and from their opponents’ stadiums without issue. In others, governments have blocked entry to visitors from entire nations, or drawn up onerous rules that make such travel impractical in a soccer season when teams often play two or three games a week.
UEFA, the European soccer governing body that runs the competitions, has decided that if restrictions adversely affect any game in the club competitions, it will be played at a neutral site where travel is permitted. But the decision to play knockout games in places seemingly chosen at random has led to confusion, and not a little grumbling.
Real Sociedad, for example, played its “home” leg against Manchester United last week in Turin, Italy, but will play the return match at United’s home, Old Trafford, on Thursday.
“It does not seem coherent to me that as the home team, we play on a neutral field, and as a visitor, we do it there,” Roberto Olabe, Real Sociedad’s director of football, told Diario Vasco. “I would like the return to also be on neutral ground, or for UEFA to appoint a single venue for a one-game tie as it did last year.”
The displeasure has not been universal. Both Hungary and Romania, whose teams almost never go deep in major European competitions, have been eager to bring the games to their countries — even if, in many cases, they must still be played behind closed doors.
“A match played in the framework of the most prestigious European interclub competition is a major sporting event, and we offered our support to the organizers as soon as this possibility was raised,” the Romanian soccer federation president, Razvan Burleanu, told Agence France-Presse.
The playing of some games at neutral sites has turned the first tiebreaker for the tournament, the away goals rule, into something of a paradox. Normally, if a home-and-away tie ends with neither team ahead in total goals, the team with the most goals away from home advances. The logic is that scoring away from home is a little harder in a hostile environment, and should get a small bonus.
But home isn’t the same for everyone. Chelsea, for example, will play its away game not at Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium but on neutral ground in Bucharest. But any goals scored there still will count as away goals only for the English team.
Atlético will then have to defend, or make up, any difference in the score line on Chelsea’s home field in London next month.
For the Benfica-Arsenal matchup, the away-goals rule seemed even more puzzlingly arbitrary. The first leg in Rome ended in a 1-1 tie, when Arsenal was considered the away team. Benfica will be the away team in Greece, but if that leg ends in a higher-scoring draw — say, 2-2 — Benfica will advance by having scored more away goals.
(Some European soccer traditions appear immune to the coronavirus: The Serbian club Red Star Belgrade was forced to apologize last week after some of its fans broke into a closed stadium for a Europa League tie against Milan and racially abused Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is of Bosnian descent.)
Soccer’s scheduling problems may not be over, however. The continuing reach of the pandemic has called into question the plans to stage this summer’s European Championship in 12 cities around Europe. Traditionally, the event has been a less-sprawling affair hosted by one country, or a pair of neighboring ones.
Given the travel complications laid bare by the club competitions, the idea of national teams flying around Europe seems foolhardy, or downright dangerous. Already there are calls for relocating the entire tournament to a single county, probably England, which is already scheduled to host the two semifinals and the final.
Over the weekend, The Sunday Times of London reported that the British government had told UEFA it was ready and willing to stand in as host of the full schedule of games, although the country’s health minister promptly denied that report.