As black-and-white clad Juventus fans mingled in the restaurants and bars of Lyon ahead of a Champions League game Wednesday, the decision to let the match go ahead amid a coronavirus outbreak in nearby Italy met with a defiant stance from France's health minister but criticism from others.
Lyon received the go-ahead from French authorities on Tuesday, sparking disapproval from some politicians and residents close to the stadium.
Around 3,000 Juventus fans from Turin in northern Italy attended the game at Groupama Stadium, located some 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) outside of the city centre in the commune of Décines-Charpieu.
The usual protocol was maintained before the game, with players from both sides holding hands with young mascots as they walked onto the pitch. Players shook hands with each other in the tunnel moments before, with Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo hugging Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, his Portugal teammate.
The travelling supporters were grouped together in a top section of the 59,000-seater stadium, with a couple of Italian tricolour flags and Juve flags draped over the railings.
Earlier, Juventus fans in the city centre were eating and drinking around the large Place Bellecour square amid a general sense of calm. They were not seen to be wearing any protective face masks, and Italian fans interviewed on television welcomed the decision to let them attend.
In Italian soccer, reaction to the fast-spreading virus from China has been swift and strong. It has led to the postponement of games in northern Italy, where a cluster of the COVID-19 disease has caused several deaths and forced towns to be locked down. By Wednesday evening, the number of positive cases in Italy had reached 400.
Several Italian league matches this weekend, including the table-topping clash between Serie A leader Juventus and Inter Milan, will be played in empty stadiums. Arriving in Milan on Wednesday for a Europa League game, players from Bulgarian club Ludogorets stepped off the team bus wearing masks and gloves. They play against AC Milan on Thursday night, a game which will also be held without fans.
France's health minister Olivier Veran said such measures are not needed yet in France, and urged people not to panic.
He insists that France is not considering closing its border with Italy, nor banning big gatherings of people — such as at soccer matches or Paris Fashion Week — because it makes no sense.
“We're taking decision based on a scientific and medical rational," Veran said Wednesday. "Based on facts, figures.”
Turin, where Juventus is based in the Piedmont region, is located some 200 kilometres (124) miles from the zones said to be most at risk.
“No one has been identified as ill (from the virus) in Turin, nor in the Piedmont region,” Veran said. “There is no reason not to allow (this match). The Italian fans (for the Lyon game) will be in a dedicated stand.”
Visiting fans are allocated their own part of the stadium in every game, for security reasons. And Lyon's long-standing president said he feels there is no need to cause “additional anguish” by banning Italian fans based on fear rather than reason.
“Let's stick to clear answers from the scientists,” Jean-Michel Aulas said. “All fans from Lyon and Juventus can come without any problems.”
But the decision not to hold the match in an empty stadium — or at least an empty away section — was scathingly criticized by the mayor of nearby Meyzieu. His town is located in the Décines-Charpieu commune, which boasts the gleaming stadium.
He says “the phone hasn't stopped ringing at the town hall” from concerned local residents.
“It's far too late now to take the measures we've asked for," mayor Christophe Quiniou told BFM TV station. "Since the start of the weekend, the inhabitants of the towns of Décines and Meyzieu have expressed their worries and their incomprehension, upon hearing no measures would be taken and no restrictions (imposed)."
He said letting the match go ahead clashed with other “precautionary measures” taken in France, for example with school children returning from holidays in certain parts of Italy.
“Here we're doing everything possible ... to maximize it (the risk)," Quiniou said. "Allowing people in numbers to come from the northern regions of Italy, let them take buses all together in an enclosed space, and then put them in contact with 50,000 people in a stadium.”
Foreign fans going to the stadium, either during last year's women's World Cup or the men's European Championship in 2016, often arrived in droves by tram from city centre locations such as Lyon Part-Dieu train station. There is one tram stop directly in front of the stadium, and another about one kilometre (0.6 miles) away.
Quiniou said “all of those who did not come by bus and who arrived by car (from Italy)” will park and then “use public transport with all of the inhabitants. ... What will happen around the stadium will have reprecussions."
But Lyon resident Paul Wheal, 47, who lives near the other main station, Lyon-Perrache, is not alarmed by Italian fans in Lyon, saying “I haven't heard anyone talking about it in recent days.”
Associated Press photographers Daniel Cole and Laurent Cipriani in Lyon, France contributed to this report.
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