The stands didn’t fill and the crowd didn’t roar, but there was an important soccer match scheduled in Milan on Thursday, so Internazionale, the home team, and Ludogorets, the visitors from Bulgaria, set aside their fears about the coronavirus and dutifully went about playing each other.
Italian health officials had set the bizarre stage for the game by ordering the stadium closed to spectators. In Italy, where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases soared past 600 this week, the authorities have restricted public gatherings in an attempt the slow the spread of the outbreak.
But the Europa League schedule was inflexible, and so the round-of-32 game went on, with only the players’ shouts, the coaches’ instructions and the referee’s whistle as a soundtrack.
Ludogorets arrived more than an hour before kickoff but was clearly wary: When its players filed off the bus and entered the stadium, they were wearing face masks.
While the tens of thousands of fans who had bought tickets were absent, attempts at pageantry were preserved: The teams walked out of the tunnel side by side as normal, then stood stoically while the Europa League anthem boomed out of the loudspeakers in the empty stadium. The players posed for team photos, and the captains exchanged handshakes and team pennants.
Ludogorets scored first, on a timely shove and a tight-angle finish by the Brazilian Cauly. Inter’s defenders protested, saying Cauly had shoved down center back Diego Godín to free himself, but even in the silence the referee wasn’t inclined to listen.
Inter equalized on Cristiano Biraghi’s shot to the near post in the 31st minute, and then took the lead on Romelu Lukaku’s rare double header just before halftime. Lukaku didn’t know much about the goal — his first attempt was saved, and the ricochet went in off his forehead as he lay on the turf. It was, though, the first time it would have been nice if a crowd had been there to rise as one and scream for something, especially something that doesn’t happen very often.
As the scoreboard clock ticked down, Inter’s two goals, combined with the two it scored in the first leg of the home-and-home tie, effectively assured it would advance to the next round. But the German referee, Daniel Siebert, wasn’t up for any stalling. “Take the ball,” he shouted to an Inter player at one point. “They need three goals. Come on.”
Inter’s days playing in empty stadiums are not over. Its match against league-leading Juventus on Sunday, a pivotal and highly anticipated moment in this year’s title race, is one of five this weekend that have been ordered played behind closed doors.