Atletico Madrid has 2 coronavirus cases. Will Champions League be disrupted?

    Two women wearing masks pass by a giant poster of Atletico Madrid players at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Spain. (AP Photo/Paul White)

    Two members of Atletico Madrid’s traveling party for the Champions League quarterfinals tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, giving European soccer its first major coronavirus dilemma since the spring.

    Atleti is scheduled to play RB Leipzig on Thursday in Lisbon. The squad planned to depart for Portugal on Monday. Training and travel schedules, the club said, have now been disrupted and revised.

    It’s unclear whether the two individuals who tested positive are players or other staff members. Each has been quarantined at home since receiving the positive test result on Sunday. The entire traveling party will undergo another round of testing before heading to Lisbon.

    The problem, though, is that neither Atleti, UEFA authorities nor public health officials can do anything to ensure that the virus hasn’t already spread further throughout the team.

    Why Atletico Madrid could be in trouble

    Europe’s big four soccer leagues – England’s, Spain’s, Germany’s and Italy’s – returned from coronavirus layoffs in May and June, and completed their 2019-20 seasons without any significant postponements or major outbreaks.

    Atletico Madrid wrapped up its league campaign on July 19. It took a week off, then returned to training on July 27 to prepare for the resumption of the Champions League. It tested all players and staff members – 93 people in total – upon their return. All tested negative.

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    According to the club, it administered another round of tests on Aug. 2. Again, all came back negative.

    The next round of testing, it seems – unless the club’s news release omits some – was Saturday, Aug. 8. Results came in the following day, Sunday. Two were positive.

    The big worry now is the infrequency of testing. It left a seven-day window, from Aug. 2 to Aug. 9, during which players or staff could have been exposed to the virus. There’s no way to know if those two individuals became infectious on Monday, or Friday, or sometime in between.

    The earlier they were infectious, the more dozens of players and staffers could have been exposed. The more they were exposed, the more likely it is that they contracted the virus this past week. Because SARS-CoV-2 takes 3-7 days to incubate, new cases might not be detectable for another few days.

    That’s why doctors would advise anybody who had close contact with the two COVID-positive individuals this past week to isolate for at least five days, and ideally more.

    Atleti, though, can’t do that – if those close contacts include players and coaches. The Champions League quarterfinal is in four days.

    Isolation, and canceled training sessions, would put them at a competitive disadvantage against RB Leipzig. Business as usual, however, could leave them susceptible to the St. Louis Cardinals or Miami Marlins scenario – where one case quickly became four, and eventually became 20 baseball players and coaches who’d contracted COVID-19. A similar outbreak, of course, would end Atleti’s season.

    Coronavirus cases could disrupt Champions League run

    The Champions League is scheduled to be completed in less than two weeks. The final is Aug. 23. The window is narrow. Scheduling flexibility is limited. The second of four quarterfinals, therefore, is suddenly the subject of uncertainty.

    All was well for two months. Major European nations had corralled the pandemic. A month ago, each country with a remaining Champions League participant was averaging less than 1,000 cases per day. (The U.S., by comparison, was rising well above 50,000 cases per day, and is still there.)

    But in late-June, Spain lifted its national state of emergency and loosened restrictions. Citizens lost patience. Coronavirus cases began to spike again. The chief reason European sports leagues had been able to avoid the virus – that the virus wasn’t all that present in their communities – began to disappear.

    Atletico Madrid is now experiencing the consequences. What remains to be seen is how serious those consequences will be.

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