3 hotbeds of European soccer ready to resume in earnest

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FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020 file photo, Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Eibar at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain. panish Prime Minister Pedro Snchez announced Saturday, May 23, 2020 that the soccer league in Spain will be allowed to resume from June 8. While the top tier, La Liga, can play from this date, it has already said it wants to resume play on June 12. It is unclear when the first games will be held. There has been no play in the top tier since March 12 due to the coronavirus crisis. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort, File)

When the coronavirus gripped Europe in early April, the prospect of professional soccer resuming this season felt unfeasible and even unethical.

Yet, over the next seven days, the sport will make its return in three powerhouse countries that were among the hardest hit by the pandemic — Italy, Spain and England.

This will be soccer in a very different form, though, as already demonstrated in countries like Germany, Denmark and Poland, which were among the first to restart.

With spectators not allowed in stadiums, Zoom walls and cardboard cutouts have replaced fans in the stands. A swab test for COVID-19 is as much part of the pre-match routine for players as stretching their muscles. Artificial crowd noise is now the soundtrack for matches for TV viewers, with soccer now essentially an armchair sport for the next few months.

So when the Spanish league resumes on Thursday after a three-month suspension with a match between Andalusian rivals Sevilla and Real Betis, what is usually one of the most colorful and passionate derbies in soccer will likely lose some of its appeal.

Italian soccer restarts the following day with a semifinal match in the Coppa Italia between Juventus and AC Milan, two of the most storied clubs in Europe, in an empty stadium.

Then, on June 17, the most lucrative and popular league in the world — the English Premier League — is back with two games, including Manchester City against Arsenal. This despite many schools still being closed, incoming passengers at airports being asked to quarantine for two weeks, and many deaths still being reported each day.

It will be sanitized and soulless, but soccer will still be back.