GENEVA (AP) — First it was the Faroe Islands. Then came Germany’s Bundesliga. Next up is Estonia.
When three soccer games are played Tuesday in Estonia, it will become the third European top-tier league to emerge from a shutdown forced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Games will, inevitably, start in empty stadiums though fans might return as soon as July. Government approval should let up to 1,000 spectators attend each game in the 10-team Meistriliiga from July 1.
“The emotional connection to be back in the stadium is the most important thing,” Estonian soccer federation spokesman Mihkel Uiboleht told The Associated Press on Monday.
Fans got just one sight of their teams on the opening weekend of a March-November season that is normal in colder northern Europe.
The 2020 Estonian season — cut to a maximum 32 games instead of 36 — is now planned to finish on Dec. 12.
“There have been winters when on the 12th of December there was a meter of snow,” Uiboleht said, though temperatures in recent years on that date were above freezing by the Baltic Sea.
The later schedule could be an issue for soccer officials if there is a widely predicted winter wave of COVID-19 infections.
Estonia, a country of around 1.3 million people, had 64 deaths up to Monday, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Preparations for the league restart, including testing players, club staff and match officials, exceeded the level Estonia’s government required, Uiboleht said.
State aid programs for employers and stadium owners have also helped clubs facing almost four months without matchday revenue.
“I can’t say there will be no bankruptcies,” Uiboleht acknowledged, praising UEFA’s early payment of around 68 million euros ($73 million) to be shared across all 55 member nations.
That cash compensates clubs who released players called up to national team duty for 2020 European Championship qualifying games last year and Nations League games in 2018.
Clubs across Europe, from Barcelona and Liverpool to Flora Tallinn and Nomme Kalju, were entitled to the same rate per player for each squad selection.
“Even if it’s only 50,000 euros ($54,000), here it can basically save a football club.” Uiboleht said.
Now that Estonia is ready to restart, the federation is also hoping for fresh income from rare overseas interest in league broadcast rights, Uiboleht said.
Tuesday’s action includes league leader Paide Linnameeskond hosting Tulevik. Paide tops the table by virtue of an 8-1 win at Tallinna Kalev.
Flora restarts Wednesday at home to Tammeka Tartu, defending the title it won with 31-goal striker Erik Sorga last year.
That form earned the 20-year-old Sorga a move to MLS side DC United.
“It’s not very often that you sell an attacking player from Estonia,” Uiboleht said. “Normally, it would be a defensive player that’s our specialty.”
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