BARCELONA, Spain — Effusive hugs to celebrate goals, shoves and scuffles following hard fouls, players not following the new norm of social distancing urged by authorities during water breaks or when leaving the pitch.
Everything inside the touch lines almost looked the same as pre-pandemic times on the second day of the return of the Spanish league after a three-month stoppage. The only exception that broke the illusion of normality of Valencia drawing with Levante 1-1 and Granada beating Getafe 2-1 on Friday were the medics wearing face masks while attending players who had suffered a bad knock.
Off the pitch it was another story. Reserve players, used substitutes, and assistant coaches sat separated by several seats. Ball boys had orders to disinfect balls before putting them back in play. Everyone except the active players and the head coaches wore face masks to reduce the contagion risk for the coronavirus that has spread death across the globe and made sports authorities rethink how to keep athletes, referees, and staffs safe.
The biggest difference was the silence inside the stadium devoid of fans. In an attempt to recreate some of the atmosphere for television viewers, the Spanish league is piping in artificial cheering and superimposing virtual fans on the empty stands.
The sound effects include chants and extra cheers when a team recovers a ball or has a promising attack. But far from the quality of the graphics of popular soccer video games, the virtual supporters appear as a flat block with blurry semblances of people, a difference that has earned more than a few unfavourable comparisons on social media. Spanish TV viewers can choose to watch the direct feed from the stadium, but international viewers have only the augmented version.
“It is strange, but we can slowly move on and the people at home can enjoy the games and hopefully we can continue forward while remaining healthy,” Valencia goalscorer Rodrigo Moreno said.
The league has not given up hope that some supporters could be back in the stands by the end of the season if Spain continues to gradually lift restrictions prompted by the pandemic. Spain’s government, however, has ruled that out for a country which has more than 27,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and got its outbreak under control only last month.
La Liga became the second top European league to resume on Thursday when Sevilla beat Real Betis 2-0. The Bundesliga in Germany had already restarted. The English Premier League and Serie A are set to follow next week.
Granada striker Carlos Fernandez scored two second-half goals poorly defended by Getafe goalkeeper David Soria to lead the hosts’ fightback in a very physical match.
Fernandez cancelled out David Timor’s 20th-minute opener when he grazed a free kick lobbed into the area. The ball was then weakly parried by Soria, who couldn’t keep it from heading toward his net where it was touched by a stumbling defender before finding the net in the 70th. Fernandez was credited for the goal even though he said he was not sure who actually did more to put it in.
Fernandez scored the winner nine minutes later when he finished off a rebound of his own shot that Soria knocked back to him instead of pushing it wide.
“I am exhausted after three months without playing,” Fernandez said, before dedicating the win to Spain’s health workers “who have fought on the frontlines and risked their lives for all of us.”
To help teams deal with squads that may be out of shape, the league is allowing five substitutions instead of two.
Levante’s Gonzalo Melero converted a penalty kick seven minutes into stoppage time after a video review informed the referee that Valencia defender Mouctar Diakhaby committed a foul just inside the box.
Moreno put Valencia in front in the 89th after Levante striker Roger Marti earned a second booking in the 75th.
Getafe was left in fifth place and Valencia in seventh as they stumbled into their quests to finish in the top four and earn a Champions League berth.