Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday announced the suspension until April 3 of all sporting events in the country, including the top-flight Serie A football league, as Italy grapples with the coronavirus crisis.
The final Serie A game before government announcement saw Sassuolo beat Brescia 3-0 behind closed doors in Reggio Emilia on Monday.
After scoring his opening goal Sassuolo striker Francesco Caputo held up a handwritten message on piece of paper, urging fans: “Everything will be fine. Stay at home.”
A few hours later the Prime Minister used similar words as he announced a countrywide lockdown.
“I am going to sign a decree that can be summarised as follows: I stay at home,” Conte announced in a dramatic evening television address.
The unprecedented measures limiting travel and banning public gatherings across the country of more than 60 million people came after 97 more deaths took Italy’s toll to 463.
The measures include the closure of schools, universities and the suspension of sports competitions.
“There is no reason why matches and sporting events should continue and I am thinking of the football championship,” said Conte.
“I’m sorry but all the fans must take note of it, we will not even allow gyms to be used for sports activities,” he added.
The decree allows the possibility of organising matches under international jurisdiction behind closed doors, such as ties in UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League.
Juventus are due to host Lyon in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie in Turin next week. Inter Milan are due to host Spain’s Getafe in the Europa League on Thursday while Roma welcome Sevilla a week later.
Earlier Monday, Italy’s National Olympic Committee (CONI), which has authority over all national sports federations, had recommended “sporting activities at all levels” be suspended until April 3 to help contain the virus outbreak and called for a government decree to enforce the request.
The decree, which goes beyond sport and provides for draconian new measures to combat the coronavirus, will come into force on Tuesday throughout Italy, the second most-affected country after China.
Since Sunday, there had been growing calls to stop sports competitions and in particular Serie A, with lower football leagues already paused.
Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora called for the suspension of Serie A while Italian Footballers’ Association president Damiano Tommasi tweeted that “stopping football is the most useful thing for our country right now”.
On Monday several Italian federations, such as those in swimming and winter sports, announced the end of competitive activities, joining rugby and volleyball which had been already suspended.
Serie A is now frozen after 26 games out of 38 in the season, with eight-time reigning champions Juventus leading the table one point ahead of Lazio. Inter Milan are third, nine points behind, with a game in hand.
Questions remain about getting the season finished. At least three rounds of matches will need to be rearranged after April 3 before the end of the season scheduled for May 24.
There is little room for manoeuvre because of Euro 2020 beginning on June 12. And there are also concerns that Euro 2020, due to be hosted across 12 countries including Italy, might face an unprecedented cancellation.
In 1973 a cholera epidemic which left 227 dead in Italy, including more than 170 in Naples, did not stop “calcio” in the football-mad country.