Josip Ilicic clutched his matchball, and, in the absence of the throng of photographers that would usually clamber over one another to get the picture of a piece of history, posed for the few appointed to snap the official record of the event. Ilicic had just scored an extraordinary four goals in a victory that put his club, Atalanta, in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in their first campaign in Europe's premier club competition.
A feat like that deserves a few more cheers than it heard. Few photojournalists witnessed and there was no crowd at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium, where the one thing that could not be said about the lack of atmosphere, spectators having been kept away because of the coronavirus crisis, was that it inhibited goals. Atalanta won 4-3 against Valencia, taking the aggregate scoreline over the two legs to 8-4.
Italy 1, Spain 0, then, in what was due to be an eight-day festival of contests between southern Europe's two pre-eminent football cultures. After the Atalanta-Valencia goal-glut, Internazionale, third in Serie A, against Getafe, fourth in Liga, a compelling prospect, a traditional giant taking on the gutsy upstarts from outer Madrid for a place in the last eight of the Europa League; in the same competition, Sevilla versus Roma, third in La Liga versus fifth in Serie A; and next Wednesday, Barcelona hosting Napoli, level at 1-1 from the first leg, with Champions League progress at stake.
But what was to have been a riveting mini-series is now a bleak saga. No supporters were to be allowed in any of these contests, public health issues prioritised. Uefa went a step further by postponing the match between Inter and Getafe after the Spanish club refused to travel to Italy because of the coronavirus outbreak and another, Roma, said they had been denied permission to travel to Spain for their game against Sevilla.
The European governing body said in a statement that further decisions on those two matches would be communicated in "due course".
Getafe were adamant that they would not travel to Milan for Thursday's scheduled opening 90 minutes of their engagement with Inter, in Lombardy, one of the first regions to have come under the Italian government's lockdown, because of the spread of Covid-19, on movement in and out.
“We will not fly there,” said Angel Torres, the Getafe president. “I am fearful of infection. We could bring the virus back with us. If we are to go out of the competition, we will take it with our heads held high. But we can’t play under these conditions.”
Roma meanwhile announced their charter flight to Seville had not been given permission to land in Spain.
Amid this uncertainty, the prospect of any major competition reaching an orderly conclusion over the next three months can look remote. Josip Ilicic would be wise to hold tight to his historic matchball: Conventional trophies may not be there for any footballer employed in Italy to seize or lift for some time yet.
Sporting fixtures across the world played out to empty arenas
Serie A has been suspended until at least April and the Italian authorities are in discussion about whether the most practical way of completing the season is via a series of play-offs rather than trying to find time to play out all the postponed fixtures of a campaign that had developed into one of the most gripping for many years, with Lazio genuinely threatening to break Juventus' eight-year grip on the title, and Atalanta as free-scoring and attractive domestically as they have become in the Champions League.
As for Uefa competitions, real doubts. With five and six days still to go before Juventus, who host Lyon - the French club lead 1-0 from the first leg - and Napoli are in action again, executives of those clubs and their scheduled opponents, Lyon and Barcelona, hope there is time to make arrangements, though both matches will be without crowds. Josep Maria Bartomeu, the Barcelona president, addressed the issue of the flight ban that would in theory jeopardise Napoli’s visit to Spain next week with a vague: “I am sure Napoli will get here. We still have a few days,” while expressing his concern about the economic shortfall his club would suffer without fans allowed into Camp Nou.
A more resolute suggestion came from a joint statement by the players unions of Italy (AIC) and Spain (AFE). They may represent two poles of a great sporting rivalry, be it Azzurri against La Roja, or Serie A against La Liga, but on this issue they spoke with one voice. “Travel between Italy and Spain, and vice-versa, is anticipated to become harder and more dangerous in the coming weeks. Matches would have to be played under situations of national emergency.
“The AIC and AFE request of Uefa that matches between Italian and Spanish clubs be suspended, to take place in the future, under more secure conditions.”