Time running out for Bilbao's Euro 2020 games

Richard Martin
·3-min read

By Richard Martin

(Reuters) - Bilbao's bid to host matches at the rescheduled European Championship is looking increasingly shaky due to the regional government's strategy on COVID-19 restrictions and its reluctance to commit to allowing spectators attend games.

Athletic Bilbao's San Mames stadium is due to host Spain's three group stage matches plus a last-16 fixture but must submit a plan to UEFA by April 7 informing the organisers of a strategy to accommodate fans.

UEFA will then make a decision on the suitability of venues and planned capacities.

Allowing spectators alone is not a requisite for hosting matches and UEFA has said it is committed to using the same 12 host cities as planned before the tournament was postponed due to the pandemic. However, president Aleksander Ceferin has emphasised the importance of fans attending.

"Fans are such a big part of what makes football special and that is true of the European Championships as much as it is of any game. We must allow ourselves the maximum space to allow their return to the stadiums," he said last month.

The presence of fans is also key to making the tournament a financial success: UEFA made 400 million euros ($475.72 million) from ticketing and hospitality from Euro 2016, just over a fifth of the total revenue amounting to 1.93 billion euros.

The tournament's health adviser has told Reuters that stadiums for this year's tournament could be at over 30% capacity.

UEFA's stance appears to be at odds with the Basque regional government, which plans to maintain its stringent novel coronavirus restrictions until June.

The regional government's strategy permits a maximum of 1,200 spectators in outdoor venues in a best-case scenario where regional infections are below 60 per 100,000 people. Infections in the region stood at 201 per 100,000 on Wednesday.

The Basque government said it hoped matches would take place in Bilbao while stressing "everything depends on the evolution of the pandemic".

"No-one will oppose the presence of supporters if the health situation allows it," said their statement.

"With three months to go, we have to be cautious, but we'll continue working with UEFA and other hosts cities to see if Euro 2020 games can be held with supporters, how many, and in what conditions."

UEFA declined to comment on whether Bilbao could lose hosting rights.

England has committed to letting up to 10,000 fans return to stadiums in May, boosting hopes of larger crowds when Wembley hosts Euro 2020 matches including the semi-finals and the final.

Spain's sports ministry will announce whether to let fans into stadiums from April, but only the Basque government can decide whether to allow supporters at the Euro matches in Bilbao.

Glasgow and Dublin are in a similar situation to Bilbao, with the Scottish and Irish governments also yet to give assurances on fans attending.

VACCINE LAG

Britain has bolstered plans to release restrictions for the tournament due to the largest COVID-19 vaccination programme in Western Europe.

The Basque Country, however, has lagged in vaccine distribution, administering 73.1% of doses received, the lowest in Spain.

Only 54,000 people out of the region's population of 2.2 million had received the full two doses, considerably fewer than regions with smaller populations.

Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales still wishes to see Bilbao hold matches even without fans, arguing the tournament would raise the city's international profile.

But there is growing opposition to the games in the biggest city of a region with strong separatist sentiment, as the economic benefits, estimated at 84 million euros before the pandemic struck, fade with the prospect of an empty stadium.

($1 = 0.8408 euros)

(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)