Champions League games postponed as virus hits world soccer

National Sports

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema reacts at the end of La Liga soccer match between Betis and Real Madrid at the Benito Villamarin stadium in Seville, Spain, Sunday, March. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Miguel Morenatti)

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The deepening virus outbreak prompted the cancellation of Champions League soccer for the first time Thursday, with the high-profile match between Manchester City and Real Madrid one of two to be postponed.

Juventus’ home match against Lyon in the last 16 — also scheduled for Tuesday — was called off, too, as the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on leagues and cup competitions around the world, from Spain to the Netherlands to the United States.

In South America, FIFA agreed to postpone the start of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

The Spanish league was brought to halt for at least the next two rounds, shortly after Real Madrid announced its players had been put in quarantine. That decision was taken because one of the club’s basketball players, who share facilities with Madrid’s soccer players, tested positive for the virus.

Hours later, UEFA said the City-Madrid game at Etihad Stadium was postponed, with no new date arranged by European soccer’s governing body. City leads 2-1 from the first leg in Madrid.

At the same time, Juventus’ match against Lyon was canceled by UEFA after it was confirmed on Wednesday that a player from the Italian team, Daniele Rugani, tested positive for COVID-19. Lyon leads 1-0 from the first leg.

Rugani, who also plays for the Italian national team, was the first player in the country’s top soccer division to test positive for the disease. There was a second announced on Thursday — Sampdoria striker Manolo Gabbiadini.

“I’ve already received so very many messages. But I still want to reassure you that I’m fine, so don’t worry,” Gabbiadini, who was in self-isolation, wrote on Twitter.

The outbreak of the virus has led to a nationwide lockdown in Italy, where soccer and all other sports have been suspended until April 3.

It’s not known when the Champions League will resume. UEFA has called stakeholders to a meeting by video conference on Tuesday to deal with the effect on European competitions of the coronavirus outbreak.

“All domestic and European competitions,” including this year’s multi-country European Championship, will be discussed.

The World Health Organization labeled COVID-19 a pandemic, citing its alarming spread and severity. It has infected more then 125,000 people worldwide and caused more than 4,500 deaths since erupting in China.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Among the leading leagues in Europe, England’s Premier League is continuing to be the outlier.

Following a government meeting, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said sports events in the country will be allowed to go on — although they could potentially be banned at a later date.

“We are guided by the science. There is very little epidemiological or medical reason at the moment to ban such events,” Johnson said.

It means, as it stands, Premier League games will go ahead this weekend along with other major sporting events in Britain like Wales vs. Scotland in Six Nations rugby and horse racing at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival.

Only one Premier League game has been affected so far amid the outbreak, with Man City’s home match against Arsenal on Wednesday called off. That decision was taken after members of Arsenal’s playing squad went into self-isolation in a precautionary move.

On Thursday, Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said “a few” of his players have symptoms of coronavirus and were being kept away from the squad. Rodgers was speaking two days before Leicester plays Watford.

Chelsea underwent a deep clean of its training ground Thursday, meaning its players didn’t practice two days ahead of their Premier League game against Aston Villa. No Chelsea player has shown any symptoms of the virus.

Elsewhere, Dutch soccer authorities canceled all matches until the end of the month, including friendly internationals against the United States and Spain, and Portugal shut down its league until further notice. The Belgian soccer league backpedaled on its decision to keep stadiums open to fans during the outbreak, saying the last round of regular-season matches in the top league scheduled for this weekend will be played in empty stadiums.

Major League Soccer in the United States was also shutting down for a 30-day period because of the virus.

In South America, FIFA agreed to a request by all of CONCACAF’s member federations to delay the start of World Cup qualifying, which had been set to begin later this month. It did not set new dates for the games.

Next week’s group-stage matches of the Copa Libertadores tournament were also postponed. Three Copa Libertadores matches scheduled for Thursday were set to go ahead.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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