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Spain's perfect comeback tainted by outbreak in 2nd division

MADRID (AP) — Spanish soccer came within hours of pulling off the perfect comeback during the coronavirus pandemic. The first division finished its delayed schedule with Real Madrid winning the title and the second tier reached the final round of matches without glitches. Only the promotion playoffs would be left in a season that lingered after a three-month break because of the pandemic.

But chaos struck just before the regular season could be completed. It was about 5 p.m. local time (1500 GMT) on Monday, four hours before the final-round kickoff, when Spanish league president Javier Tebas was told of an outbreak of coronavirus cases at Madrid-based club Fuenlabrada. Six players and two members of the club's technical staff had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s when the situation got complicated,” Tebas told Spanish TV. “According to the protocols, the game couldn’t be played.” Fuenlabrada, fighting for a berth in the playoffs, had a decisive match against Deportivo La Coruña, the former first-division champion that was facing relegation. Deportivo players had already arrived for the game at the Riazor Stadium when they heard the news about the positive cases at Fuenlabrada.

The league, the Spanish soccer federation and local government officials had little time to make a tough decision: suspend only the Deportivo-Fuenlabrada match or the entire final round. All matches were scheduled to be played at the same time so no one would get an unfair advantage. But postponing all games beyond the expected end of the season would add the risk of some players relaxing their fitness, and would increase the possibility of more outbreaks among teams.

“If these matches were played in 10 days, what would be the players' conditions? They were supposed to go on vacation,” Tebas said. “We would also have the sanitary risk. Maybe these matches wouldn’t even be played.”

So the decision to suspend only the match affected by the outbreak drew a wave of criticism — and threats of lawsuits — from clubs saying that the integrity of the competition was damaged. The league suddenly found itself in a tough spot.

Deportivo, which ended relegated because of a combination of results in the final round, asked for all matches to be replayed, as did other clubs who felt they were hurt by the decision. The league said they shouldn’t be played again, but it could be up to the sports courts to eventually decide who will get promoted or relegated. The promotion playoffs have already been delayed until the Deportivo-Fuenlabrada match can be rescheduled.

Tebas said it was exactly because of the possibility of problems like this that the league tried to finish the season as quickly as possible, playing games every day since it resumed after the break. The Italian league, for example, preferred to spread out its matches over a longer period, finishing closer to the resumption of the European competitions in August.

“You have to remember that we had more than 200 matches, thousands of training sessions and hundreds of team trips,” he said. “There was a chance that something could happen. We reserved almost three weeks to try to recover if something like this happened.”

Tebas said concerns increased in recent weeks after surges of cases across hard-hit Spain, and the league had been warning clubs about the need to stay on high alert. It said it will investigate whether Fuenlabrada broke the league's health safety protocols that had been in place to make sure the competition finished without problems.

Spain's sports council on Wednesday released a statement in which it praised the success of soccer's return but also expressed its concern with what happened with Fuenlabrada. It accused the league and the club of not following protocols as the team shouldn't have traveled for the match after some members had already tested positive at the weekend. It said the league and the club should have immediately informed health authorities of the COVID-19 cases.

“Fuenlabrada's decision has put in danger the health of its players and of the public, and jeopardized the competition as a whole,” the statement said. Fuenlabrada strongly contested what it called “very serious" and "false accusations” made by the sports council. It said it never breached any of the health safety protocols.

Still, some clubs have already called for Fuenlabrada to lose the points from the match if it is confirmed that it breached health safety rules. The Spanish league, which also denied any wrongdoing and criticized the sports council's statement, had some of the strictest protocols for the return of training and the resumption of competition following the pandemic break. It was the second top league to resume, after the German Bundesliga.

“We’ve got one match to go after 42 rounds,” Tebas said. “We were able to play more than 400 matches. We only have one left.”

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