There was a little over an hour until kick-off against Atlético Madrid on Wednesday evening and they hadn’t reached the ground yet, but Huesca’s players were already stretched and changed. One after another they came down the stairs or out the lift and into the foyer at a small hotel in the town centre. Outside, the bus had pulled up in front of the park, engine running. They strolled past the disinfected rug, the hand gel dispensers and out into the sunshine, climbing on board in full kit and trainers. When they got to Alcoraz, most went straight on the pitch. They weren’t allowed to go anywhere else.
A few minutes later Atlético arrived, Luis Suárez heading in wearing bright yellow football socks and shorts, a training top and a small rucksack, like a schoolboy going to a game. The scene is repeated across Spain, some changing into their boots on the grass. A couple of hours after Atlético turned up, 382km away Real Madrid’s squad were walking to their meeting with Valladolid together, all in their kit. Afterwards, having won 1-0, they made their own ways home, sweaty still, to shower – the world’s best Sunday league team.
“All we need to do when we arrive at the ground is put our boots on, just like old times,” the Betis captain, Joaquín, laughs, but not everyone finds it funny. Hit by the outbreak of coronavirus on the final day of the 2019-20 Second Division season – amid a web of intrigue and interest that saw the non-aggression pact between the league and the federation collapse and which is yet to be resolved legally – the protocol for the new season is almost four times as long as it was, at 69 pages. And the most significant change is the ban on dressing rooms.
In May, as football began its return, the league’s president, Javier Tebas, bullishly announced: “It’s more dangerous to go to the pharmacy than to go to training.” Over the summer, though, having broken the original bubble – lockdown was over, players had more time to get out, they had been on holiday and children returned to school, although footballers were advised not to pick them up – studies suggested the dressing room was where the virus was most likely to be transmitted. An enclosed space, occupied for prolonged periods, that was where a single positive could spread to the squad. So they were shut.
Osasuna offered one solution when they set up outdoor showers at their Tajonar training ground – four of them a safe distance apart – but the weather got colder and that didn’t last long. Players everywhere were told to arrive and leave training in their kit, showering at home, and that is applied to matches too. League inspectors, who change periodically to ensure they don’t get too close to the teams they’re observing, travel with every squad to ensure they comply, which doesn’t always happen and certainly not willingly.
Access to the dressing room pre-game is limited to leaving bags and getting out again – “three minutes and the clock’s running”, as one assistant coach puts it. Teams do their activation work – warm-ups, stretching, treatment – at the hotel, and change in their own rooms. Most teams are now turning up at the ground only 40 minutes before kick-off, going straight on to the grass. At half-time, only the starting XI and the manager are allowed in, and only briefly. “To change, if there are any ‘needs’ and that’s about it,” one staff member says. At the end, there are five minutes or so. Most hang around the tunnel or the pitch post-game, which they can do more easily in an empty stadium. There’s a post-kickabout feel to it, footballers chatting away. Those who didn’t play, train.
No one can shower, unless they’re a player taken off in the first half and alone in the dressing room. “We can’t change at the ground, not at home or even away,” Joaquín says. The visiting team get back on the bus or busses: there are supposed to be two of them. They do so still in their kit – although they’re given dry tops and towels – and they are taken back to the hotel to change. Treatment must wait until then, too. They get out as quick as they can. On Wednesday, Atlético’s bus had pulled away within 16 minutes of the final whistle of their 0-0 draw, leaving Diego Simeone behind to do the press conference.
Some limited solutions have been sought, aided by the absence of fans. Valladolid erected a dressing-room equivalent of a field hospital behind the seats, allowing air to pass through and a couple of players at a time to warm down, stretch or be treated. Stadium passages have been adapted to provide warm-up areas. Benches and seats are placed in gangways. At Cádiz, the Osasuna manager, Jagoba Arrasate, gave his final team talk in the open-air like a basketball coach courtside.
“That looked a bit ridiculous,” complained the Valladolid manager, Sergio González. The complaint was not aimed at his counterpart but the situation in which they all find themselves. “The dressing room is a footballer’s home,” González explained. “We’re losing part of the essence of the game: this is a team sport and a lot of that is born in he dressing room. We know we have to play, we know getting football back again is good for society but it is hard for us to have something as emblematic as the dressing room taken away. Soon, this will be like it was when we were kids: you ring at someone’s door, they get changed and come down to play. We need to find a solution as soon as possible.”
Or to use the words of one player: “You need the dressing room, you need to see each other’s faces: that’s absolutely fundamental for a team. All that tension, all that motivation, all that build-up to the game, doesn’t exist [in these conditions]. We’re robbing everyone of football: it was robbed from the fans, now it’s being robbed from the players too.”
There is, of course, an acceptance that the protocol is necessary, of the seriousness of a situation heading for a second lockdown, and a certain gratitude for their own good fortune, but others express doubts. They wonder if it’s too much. “Killing flies with canons”, is one phrase. A coach asks: “Isn’t the bus an enclosed space too?” arguing that, with the entire squad and staff tested repeatedly tested and only participating if they’re negative for Covid, the dressing room is effectively a safe space.
It has also only just started. “In the summer, you dry off a bit with a towel, you go home, shower, OK,” one player says. “But when it gets cold, starts to rain, are they going to have us in tents, going home soaked through, showering an hour later? Impossible. We’re not going to catch coronavirus, but we might get pneumonia.”
Getafe 3-0 Real Betis, Real Sociedad 0-1 Valencia, Eibar 0-1 Elche, Real Madrid 1-0 Valladolid, Huesca 0-0 Atlético Madrid, Villarreal 3-1 Alavés
• Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcácer’s fancy feet did for Alavés at Villarreal. “We were at their mercy,” the Alavés coach, Pablo Machín, admitted. Alavés’s goal came from a dreadful error from Sergio Asenjo. Not that he was letting it bother him – and he later made up for it by stopping Lucas Pérez after Manu García had sent him through. “It happens,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll put my gloves back on.”
• Elche have won a first division game for the first time in 1,933 days.
• And, yes, that is Getafe top after Ángel and Cucu scored lovely goals against Betis. But, no, that’s not really a league table yet.
• “We weren’t very brilliant,” Zinedine Zidane admitted after a Vinicius goal beat Valladolid 1-0. Real Madrid had other chances, but so did the visitors, Thibaut Courtois making three big saves. And the goal was pretty absurd: a comic “three-pass move” from Valladolid players miskicking it setting up Vinicius for a simple finish. “I don’t think I’d be lying if I said we could have taken a point here: we created loads and it’s odd that we leave without having scored,” Sergio said. “We’re letting in goals that are surreal.”
• Lionel Messi comes in peace, telling Sport that whatever he said, whatever he did, he didn’t mean it. Well, he did, but he did it for the “good of the club”, apparently. It’s time, he said, to get on with winning. “I don’t know if that means I’ll have an easy life … there’s always something here,” the coach, Ronald Koeman, said. On Thursday night, it’s Celta, the team it has taken Barcelona longest to beat on the road.