The sporting calendar has been devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak: quite rightly, national governments are airing on the side of caution and canceling major public gatherings, either forcing games to be played without spectators or simply postponing fixtures altogether.
With thousands self-isolating at home, this couldn’t have come at a worse time. These are prime viewers, people who have literally nowhere else to go and all the time in the world to watch as much sport as possible. Pity then, that an outbreak of common sense at the top of sports governing bodies has seen the majority of sporting events called off.
The Premier League has been suspended after Chelsea player Callum Hudson-Odoi tested positive, as did Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, joining La Liga and Serie A. No Formula 1 or tennis either; while in the US, there will be no NBA, NHL or MLB. Even the World Women’s Curling Championship has bit the dust (ice?).
Fear not, however: this is the perfect time to learn about sports that you haven’t paid enough attention to before. Here’s our weekend viewing guide to the coronavirus, live and with fans in the stadium.
National Rugby League – all weekend
The National Rugby League (NRL) is rugby league’s premier competition and kicks off this weekend in front of packed houses across Australia. Despite an ban on gatherings over 500 people kicking in on Monday, the NRL will play their opening round, with even Prime Minister Scott Morrison – Cronulla Sharks member #1 – due to be in attendance at ANZ Stadium in Sydney as his team take on South Sydney Rabbitohs.
“The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved Sharks, it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time,” Morrison told a press conference announcing the ban on public gatherings. “That’s fine.” If someone hasn’t photoshopped Morrison in a Sharks scarf into the “This is Fine” meme, you have my permission to use this joke and credit me for it.
If you’ve never seen the NRL before, then you’ve been missing out. It’s like rugby union, except they’re better at that passing and running and tackling thing; it’s like the NFL, except they don”t stop every ten seconds or wear pads, and crucially, it’s really easy to pick up the rules. It’s the first weekend of the season too: so tune in and you’ll be hooked to Australia’s biggest sport all the way through to October.
Rangers v Celtic – Sunday
Scotland’s football culture is unique. It’s about the only major soccer league (stop sniggering at the back) where fans in the ground matter more than those watching on TV, giving it a delightfully throwback feel at times. Pitches can be crap, balls are often hoofed long and tackles still fly in with impunity, but the atmosphere knocks the Premier League into a cocked hat and goals are still celebrated by, y’know, fans cheering, rather than filming the whole thing on their phones and waiting for the VAR check. Scotland has the highest per capita game attendance rate in the world, and not without good reason.
In fact, football is so central to the national culture that the standard ban on public gatherings has been postponed to Monday, with the implicit reasoning being that Rangers host Celtic on Sunday and that’s more important than the virus. No, really: delve into fan forums and you’ll find ample evidence that plenty of Scottish football thinks that the game is going ahead with fans because the local constabulary have no idea how they would cope with the potential for violence if the 50,000 or so people who will pack Ibrox Stadium on Sunday were dispersed evenly across the pubs of Glasgow.
For all the snide remarks about Scottish football, the Glasgow Derby is about as big as any game in the world in terms of atmosphere, history and rivalry, so tune in and get your fill of soccer as it was intended to be: a thinly-veiled cipher for centuries of social conflict.
Cheltenham Festival – Gold Cup race on Saturday
Horses can’t get coronavirus (I haven’t checked this but that hasn’t stopped the President) and with that in mind, the Cheltenham Festival is going ahead, with gamblers from around the world tuning it to lose their hard-earned on one of the British horse racing season’s showpiece events. £30 million will be wagered on the Cheltenham Gold Cup, due to be run on Saturday afternoon UK time, with 60,000 plus spectators in attendance at the racecourse.
While New York and Chicago might have cancelled their St Patrick’s Day parades, there will be no let up in festivities at Cheltenham. Every year, the event is a sea of green as Irish fans cross the water to celebrate their national holiday, and usually with good reason: every Gold Cup between 2008 and 2018 was won by an Irish jockey – usually living legend Ruby Walsh – and every leading trainer since 2012 has been Irish too. The pint-sized punter’s favorite retired last year, but it’d be a brave bettor who backed against one of his countrymen from finishing first on Saturday. If only there were some sort of phrase about the Irish and luck that could guide your betting.
Paris – Nice – Stages 6, 7, 8 all weekend
Despite widespread cancellations of sporting events in France, the Paris-Nice stage race is still going on and, this weekend, will draw to a conclusion in the southern city. Cycling has seen some of its biggest races cancelled: the Spring Classics of Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianci and Tirreno Adriatico as northern Italy went into lockdown, while in Belgium, the Three Days of De Panne was also postponed. Fernando Gaviria, a multiple stage winner in the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, has tested positive for the coronavirus.
While cycling struggles on through the crisis, Paris-Nice will provide a welcome distraction. As it is held outdoors, with crowds dispersed along the route and features about the fittest lungs in sports, it can be safe to say that this weekend’s race will be completed without postponement. It takes ages, too, so snug in and watch someone else suffer.