Budapest, Bucharest step up to the big stage

BUDAPEST • For Budapest and Bucharest, acting as unexpected hosts of round-of-16 matches in a Champions League disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic offers a moment in the football floodlights at, they insist, little risk.

With some countries unwilling to make travel exceptions for elite sport, Uefa and the participating clubs have been scrambling to avoid postponing matches.

As a result, Budapest held the first-leg match between RB Leipzig and Liverpool yesterday and will host Borussia Monchengladbach and Manchester City next Wednesday.

The Hungarian capital has also landed Tottenham's Europa League last-32, first-leg tie against Austria's Wolfsberger tomorrow.

Bucharest, meanwhile, will host the first-leg Champions League clash between Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, scheduled for next Tuesday, a rehearsal for the four European Championship matches to be played in the city in June.

While both Hungary and Romania have long football histories, neither country expected to be the site of Champions League knockout games. However, Spain and Germany have refused to ease their coronavirus bans on visitors from Britain, so Hungary stepped in, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a keen football fan, sweeping away concerns.

The players will have to submit to strict restrictions set out by Uefa and Hungarian officials, with games held behind closed doors.

They will be "isolated from the public" and "not be allowed to meet anyone and will have to undergo PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests," said Jeno Sipos, spokesman for the Hungarian Football Federation.

Sports journalist Gergely Marosi believes the pluses outweigh the negatives. "The minimal health risk means Budapest has little to lose," he said. "The visiting clubs take care of the costs, which means work for the staff at the stadium and at the empty hotels."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2021, with the headline 'Budapest, Bucharest step up to the big stage'. Subscribe