Wolves comment: That’s quite a din for an ‘empty’ stadium

Question: When is a behind-closed-doors fixture not a behind closed doors fixture? Answer: Whenever Uefa are running the show.

Wolverhampton Wanderers in Athens (AMA)
Wolverhampton Wanderers in Athens (AMA)

This week, for the second time this season, Wolves found themselves involved in a match supposedly being played with no supporters present which ultimately didn’t quite match most people’s definition.

Back in October, there was the ludicrous spectacle of a fixture supposedly subject to a fan ban due to a club being found guilty of racist abuse drawing a crowd of more than 20,000, thanks to a loophole in the Uefa regulations which allowed tickets to be distributed to local schools and football clubs.

The gate for Slovan Bratislava’s group stage match against Wolves ended up being the Slovakian club’s biggest of the season.

Then, on Thursday night, anyone tuning in to the first leg of Wolves’ last-16 tie might have been forgiven for wondering what was going on, as it became abundantly clear another stadium which should have been free of supporters definitely had a few in it.

The answer as to why could again be found in the Uefa rule book. It allowed both clubs to give around 50 tickets in the directors’ area of the stadium, which could be given to family or friends of the players of staff.

Wolves’ travelling contingent at the match was as small as it could be, with head of football administration Matt Wild the only club official in attendance.

Olympiacos, meanwhile, appeared to have given out all their guest tickets to 50 of the rowdiest individuals they could find. In a full ground, such a group would struggle to make themselves heard. But in an otherwise empty stadium they made quite the din, one which was never going to go unnoticed by the watching TV audience. They even had a trumpet.

In truth, for those members of the media present at what was otherwise an eerie and unpleasant spectacle, their antics came as something of a welcome distraction.

Their presence still seemed a little odd, however, considering the unusual circumstances surrounding the match following Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis’s positive test for coronavirus.

A number of special measures were put in place to lessen the risk to players and staff.

Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo held no pre or post-match press conference, while the post-match mixed zone, where player interviews are typically conducted, was not in operation. Instead, interviews with the boss and players were conducted by club media staff and then forwarded on to external media around 20 minutes after the final whistle.

This was no normal match and the presence of Olympiacos’ rowdy bunch added another surreal twist to a week where Uefa didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory.

The opinion of Wolves – and many others – was that the match should have been postponed the moment it emerged Marinakis had contracted coronavirus early on Tuesday morning. It was disappointing enough the match had already been placed behind closed doors by the Greek government. Yet Uefa’s willingness to procrastinate saw them reject the club’s appeal to call the fixture off completely and Wolves travelled out as scheduled on Wednesday afternoon.

Just 24 hours later, as the increasing spread of the coronavirus led to more and more sports leagues across the world suspending their schedules, the folly of Uefa’s decision was becoming more and more obvious.

The game would be played in the knowledge the second leg most likely wouldn’t take place for several weeks or possibly months, or perhaps not ever.

Little wonder the match often had the feel of two teams going through the motions.

What should have been a big night for both clubs – but particularly Wolves – had been reduced to a non-event. Until the visitors went behind to Karim El Arabi’s 54th-minute goal they looked like they would be anywhere rather than Athens.

Even optimism about what was ultimately a decent result didn’t last long.

Barely 12 hours after the final whistle Uefa confirmed the second leg would be postponed, leaving Wolves, Olympiacos and the 30,000-odd fans who couldn’t get into the ground wondering what had been the point of it all?

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