Champions League final to be moved from Turkey due to COVID-19

The Champions League final, club football’s biggest event, will be moved from Turkey this year and held by a different host due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a source cited by the New York Times

Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium was set to host the final on May 30, but the competition was suspended part way through its round of 16 teams in March due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

The New York Times said that UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, is now considering a number of alternative venues as it plans to complete the competition in August. A decision will be made after a meeting of UEFA’s executive committee on June 17, a source speaking under condition of anonymity told the New York Times.

UEFA will hold further talks with Turkish officials next week, to finalise an agreement to move the event. Istanbul could be picked to host the final at a later date.

The Champions League final is one of the most viewed events in sport and the decision to move the final would be a blow to Turkey. The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) has repeatedly insisted its willingness and capacity to host the match in August. 

The Turkish Super League is set to resume on June 12 by adopting hygiene and social distancing protocols and playing behind closed doors. The German Bundesliga resumed play earlier this month under such protocols, while the English Premier League intends to resume on June 17. 

UEFA will likely adopt similar strategies for the Champions League and for its second competition the Europa League – in which Turkish team Istanbul Başakşehir is still competing having reached the final 16 teams this season – with games likely to take place in empty stadiums and players subject to regular testing. 

With European travel limited, and ongoing quarantine laws in some countries, it is also likely that most of the remaining games will take place in the place picked to host the final, the New York Times said. 

Spanish radio Cadena Cope cited Lisbon as a possible option, while Sky Italy has suggested Germany could be chosen, AFP said. There are a small number of other candidates, the New York Times said.

“A working group has been set up with the participation of representatives from the leagues and clubs to examine calendar solutions and format options that would allow for the completion of the current season,” the New York Times quoted a UEFA spokesman as saying. “A variety of options is being looked at and no decisions have been made at this stage.”

Istanbul last hosted the Champions League final in 2005 at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. The memorable match was dubbed the “Miracle of Istanbul” by Liverpool fans after their team made a stunning comeback to win a penalty shoot-out victory over Italian giants AC Milan after trailing 3-0 at half-time. 

AFP reported on Friday that the TFF is still hoping that the 2020 final will be played in Istanbul in August.

“Whatever the scenario — final or mini-tournament — we are ready,” the TFF said, highlighting Turkey’s infrastructure and record against the pandemic – which has a lower death toll and mortality rate from COVID-19 compared to many western European countries. 

In addition to the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul can make available the home grounds of Turkish teams Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Beşiktaş - which hosted the UEFA Super Cup final in August 2019.

“I would not expect any problems in terms of the logistics … The main concern for me is whether fans would be able to come,” Emre Sarıgül, co-founder of the Turkish Football website, told AFP

“It is difficult to talk with certainty about anything regarding football right now because of how quickly the health situation can deteriorate,” he said.

For Turkey, hosting the Champions League final is of economic and touristic importance, especially during the pandemic. 

“Turkey has a PR problem in general so hosting major events successfully is pretty much always a boost for the country’s image and gives the opportunity to promote tourism in Istanbul and beyond,” Sarıgül said.