Sevilla midfielder Óliver Torres was at home making dinner when the match he had looked forward to more than any other was supposed to be kicking off, a “magic moment” that didn’t arrive. Across the city that hosts the biggest, noisiest derby there is, the Real Betis goalkeeper Joel Robles was preparing food and bed for his daughter, who is six months old. For 90 minutes, they like to say, the whole of Seville stops. This time it stopped for much longer, and so did the rest of Spain. How much longer, no one knows.
Torres and Robles were due to face each other on Sunday night, but the Sánchez Pizjuán stood empty and so did the streets, bar the occasional police car passing to ensure no-one was out. The country was on lockdown because of coronavirus. There was effectively a curfew only this one was all hours and so they, like everyone else, were stuck at home. Betis striker Borja Iglesias and Sevilla defender Sergio Reguilón, though, did face each other: from their sofas, online and on Fifa, they played the derby. Broadcast live, Betis won and Borja scored, which was convenient.
Sixty thousand people tuned in to watch it. There was nothing else to do.
“It’s the biggest game of the year, for the city, for all our fans, and it would have started at nine,” Torres said, just after quarter past. He was doing something else instead but his mind drifted, and he can’t have been the only one. “I’m at home, thinking about what might have been,” he admitted. “What I would be feeling, what would have been happening, all those people supporting you. You miss football anyway, so imagine a game like this. This was a magic moment for me: it was going to be the first time I lived the Seville derby at the Pizjuán.”
But the stadium, like all the rest, was empty. Like everywhere, in fact. In Madrid, children had been sent home from class on Wednesday and soon the rest of the country followed. Schools and stadiums: made to be full, noisy and alive, there may be no building on earth that feels more wrong when there’s no one inside, like skeletons. Kids were off school and it was sunny out so to start with they went where they were always going to go. Which meant that the next day, parks were closed too. Another space that shouldn’t be silent, melancholy expressed in police tape around a playground.
There’s probably no greater playground than a football ground. On Wednesday, Valencia had played in an empty stadium against Atalanta – a brilliant game that felt like no game at all – and Atlético’s visit to Liverpool was the last normal game for some time, maybe even this season, although the president of the league, Javier Tebas, says he is convinced they will find a way to complete it.
The initial idea had been for this weekend’s La Liga games to go ahead behind closed doors. But things happened fast, and not just in football, so those doors closed to players too. Just like front doors all over the country. Three hundred people are dead, which makes even discussing the rest of it feel absurd and the idea that there could have been games plain bizarre.
Slowly, the seriousness of it all imposed itself on people. Slowly, it was imposed upon people by others. Slowly? Quite fast, in fact. It just feels like a long time already. People were asked to be responsible, to take collective care. Then they were told to be: recommendations became rules. Football clubs and players played a part: theirs are voices that are heard. “Players can think ‘we’re young, it probably won’t affect us,’ but we all have to think of people with illnesses, people who are older,” Robles says.
Nor are they immune, sportsmen suddenly made mortal. Or a little more mortal, anyway. Real Madrid’s training ground was vacated and locked down after a basketball player tested positive, the team sent home on Thursday. Valencia have five positive cases, three of them players: Ezequiel Garay, José Luis Gayá and Eliaquim Mangala. Alavés have two among the staff: the players will all be tested on Monday. It’s not in their hands. Asked on Thursday what happens now, one first division coach summed it up: “God knows.” On Friday, players were sent home. Coaches were too. Most were told it would be two weeks at least.
One first division club is, supposedly, returning to training on Tuesday. They won’t. Games will not return for at least two weeks, and increasingly people wonder if they will return at all this season. There are few real expectations at the moment. “It’s 15 days to start with and then it will depend on the analyses made by the health authorities, on the numbers,” Robles says. “It’s not about the football: it’s about people, health. It’s beyond us.”
The general population had already been asked to work from home if possible. Footballers did so, and encouraged others to follow. There were videos from their houses. Sergio Ramos on a treadmill. Inui doing kick ups in his living room. Iago Aspas watching Paw Patrol. “Now is the time to be responsible,” Lionel Messi tweeted. “Stay at home,” Diego Simeone said, and when he says something you do it.
“I’m staying at home” became the hashtag, which is quite an ask for a place like Spain that lives outside. This is mostly a country of small flats in big blocks, and one that lives outside: out for breakfast, out for coffee, out for an aperitivo, out for lunch, out for everything. Terraces are packed usually, but now they have been packed away.
The Real Sociedad defender Diego Llorente, like others, was reminding people that this isn’t a holiday. At first some, lamentably, seemed to be treating it as such. Some departed cities heading for the coast. No more. There are army vehicles on the roads. This is real, even if it remains surreal. The numbers are terrifying – not least because no one believes they are the real numbers. How could they be? And how, and when, does this end?
Businesses and shops closed. Bars and restaurants were not allowed to open. The government declared a state of alarm on Saturday, banning travel. There was a lockdown. You can only leave the house to go to the supermarket, pharmacy, doctors, press kiosks, or tobacconists, and you must go straight back again after. You can go out to walk the dog, if you have one, but fast and not in groups.
In shops, some shelves were empty, queues long and everyone a metre apart. It was hard not to imagine this as the opening scenes of some disaster movie. Hard too not to glare at that bloke fingering all the fucking fruit before he bought it.
It sounds daft but you don’t expect the apocalypse on a glorious sunny day. It was lovely out, but you couldn’t be there. Police cars circulated slowly. Take the rubbish out, spend 30 seconds beyond the confines of your front door, and you feel like a fugitive so you scurry home fast. That was Sunday – although a lot of it broke down again on Monday as many made their way to “essential” work, making so much of the weekend’s precaution seem pointless.
Everyone was inside. Spain is also the noisiest country in the world, or so they say, which made the silence louder. “These are strange days,” Torres says. “It creates a kind of psychosis because you don’t know what’s going on and you’ve never experienced a situation like this.”
Some came together even as they were forced apart. All across the country there are videos of blocks where from balconies and windows they sing songs, play games, shout across to each other. At 10pm on Saturday and Sunday, what would have been half time in Celta-Villarreal and the Seville derby, people came to their balconies and applauded doctors, nurses and health professionals, underpaid and underresourced heroes.
Text messages are filled with daft jokes – which quickly dry up when positives are confirmed in the group – as well as books to read, films to watch, series to download, things to do. Friends made great suggestions that will be enjoyable discoveries. Self-discovery too, perhaps. Is it silly to think we might be better after this? But, then, concentrating isn’t easy when that phone is there at your side, news coming in, getting worse by the minute.
Could that sporting addiction even be broken, football’s grip slipping? Unlikely, and the evidence so far suggests not. It’s too easy to say sport doesn’t matter: it does matter, it does mean something, if only because we ascribe it meaning. It takes you someplace better. It fills our lives, and without it there is a hole there. Right now, everyone could so with something to fill that space. And football tried, even in the absence of games. Where better to seek solace? Football books, football articles, football films.
On Saturday, Leganés live tweeted their match against Valladolid – a huge relegation six-pointer which didn’t happen. It was a public service broadcast, designed to send a message too. Leganés won, which Valladolid suspected they would and which they could afford to laugh about after, 90 minutes filled with something enjoyably silly.
Óscar scored the winner, “taking advantage of the social distancing” advised because of the virus. The VAR intervened almost 30 times. Cadena Ser radio released commentary of the goal that wasn’t and AS wrote a match report, thanking Leganés for the laughs. God knows, everyone needed it. Other clubs did similar things, social media taking them into homes that people couldn’t leave. Real Oviedo replayed their 1992 win over Madrid. Better times.
Asked how he was getting on, the captain of a first division club said: “day one, fine … let’s see on day 15.” Another admitted he was climbing the walls already. Like anyone else, footballers get bored, maybe even more so. Sportsmen don’t do sedentary. So, what do they do? “Watch series, read a bit, try to find a way of making use of the time,” Torres says.
“My daughter keeps me entertained,” Robles says, “but it’s hard to get your mind around that you’ll be stuck inside for 15 days, or more; it’s not easy. I’m on Netflix and films and watching a lot of telly, just like anyone. I’ve been going out onto the balcony too. You’ve got to get some air, a bit of sunshine. It’s not good to be indoors on the sofa all day.”
Clubs have sent training programmes. Leganés even made theirs open to the public, the fitness coach Pol Llorente leading online sessions each morning. It’s fun and the players are getting involved, joking and winding each other up, but it’s not the same of course.
“It’s important not to lose muscle tone so you do some aerobic work, keep your strength up, because we have to be ready if and when they tell us we’re starting again,” Robles says. “Betis gave us plans. It’s mostly core work, some upper body but they know that there are materials that we haven’t got at home.” There’s no goalkeeper training as such but it won’t be long, he laughs, before he reaches the point when he gets his girlfriend to throw a ball at him and he’s diving across the living room, making saves on the sofa.
“We have to be responsible, look after ourselves, train as best we can,” says Torres. “And that includes your mind – that’s important. The main thing is listen to the health authorities and stay at home because if they say that’s the best thing, it’s the best thing. It’s a real pity to miss the derby but we have to work at home and be ready because hopefully it will be back – and we have to be back too.”