LONDON — Anil Murthy had already been facing a barrage of criticism. But as a former diplomat for Singapore, Murphy, the president of Valencia, a top soccer team in Spain, was ready for most of the barbs directed his way for imposing restrictions on access to the club’s players.
On Feb. 29, however, the complaints became more personal. His 13-year-old son, Aditya, was furious that his father would not let him attend the La Liga game that night against Real Betis. It was at the Mestalla, the stadium Aditya fell in love with after his father was handed the reins to Valencia by Peter Lim, the Singaporean businessman who owns the club.
By then, Valencia was starting to take heat from the local media and some rival teams for what they considered to be an overreaction to the threat posed by a mystery illness that had spread to Europe from Asia. No other team in Spain had dared to impose such harsh measures.
Murthy, who had spoken to friends and family in Asia, knew the coronavirus outbreak was serious and on its way, no matter what the view in Spain was at the time.
He imposed strict measures: The club’s first team was to be isolated. There was to be no contact with fans. All interviews, even those deemed mandatory as a part of Spanish soccer’s broadcast contract, would be banned. Employees who did not have a reason to be at the stadium were barred from attending. The prohibition extended to family members, too. Even die-hards like Aditya.
“He couldn’t understand it,” Murthy said, describing the argument he had with his son, the merits of which have become far more apparent. Spain has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases, after the United States.
“‘Dude, why? We are sitting apart. We are sitting somewhere else. It’s OK,’” Murthy recalled his son saying. “I said, ‘No, let’s take maximum precaution.’”
Murthy did not want to attend the game that evening himself, either. But with Spanish authorities yet to ban mass gatherings and the league continuing with its schedule, he felt that he had no option but to go.
“I can’t go into hiding,” Murthy said in a phone interview. “To me, having 30, 40,000 in the stadium when the infection is on the rise is a ticking bomb, you know. But there’s only so much a club can do.”
Murthy arrived one minute after kickoff, turning heads in the directors’ box. “They thought I wasn’t coming,” he said. He had explained to Ángel Haro, the chairman of Betis, that the traditional meal between directors would not take place. Other traditions typical to La Liga games would also be skipped, including the children accompanying the two sides onto the field. Haro was not totally convinced, but he did not complain.
The same could not be said of the news media, which greeted Murthy with a wave of negative headlines until shortly before the league suspended all activities.
Murthy, who spent almost 16 years working with Singapore’s government, was keeping an eye on what was happening there while the team owner, Lim, was sending daily updates.
“He was telling me, ‘You better take whatever action is possible right now because it’s coming your way,’” Murthy recalled Lim saying in one phone call.
“We had warnings all over Asia, the world is so connected, everyone is traveling, how can it not be possible that this will hit us, too?”
The club’s staff got to work, preparing for the outbreak in part by purchasing protective clothing and equipment. “You try to buy a mask today, it’s impossible,” Murthy said. Much of the equipment, he said, has now been donated to the local health care system as it strains to cope with coronavirus cases.
Murthy’s wife and three children are now back in Singapore. They arrived shortly before the country imposed strict border controls. Murthy remained in Valencia, which has found itself at the heart of soccer’s relationship with the coronavirus: Not only was it the first team in Spain to impose social distancing measures, it also took the field for a Champions League game in Milan against Atalanta on Feb. 19 that has since been described as a “biological bomb.” Some medical experts place the game at the heart of Europe’s first major Covid-19 outbreak, in Italy’s Lombardy region.
“There’s no doubt that it was a biological bomb, but that’s all in hindsight,” Murthy said. Since then, 35 percent of Valencia’s first team has tested positive for the coronavirus.
When the teams played again, on March 10, the match took place in eerie silence unfamiliar for the Mestalla because Spain had restricted mass gatherings. Atalanta triumphed, 4-3, in what would be Valencia’s last game before its season was brought to a juddering halt.
“We are not pleased that we played behind closed doors,” Murthy said.
Still, when soccer does return, it will almost certainly be without fans, as leagues across Europe and beyond consider returning to a world changed by the coronavirus.
“You play behind closed doors, the stadium is empty, it feels like a friendly training match,” Murthy said. “One of the biggest advantages we have playing at home is that our stadium is famous for intimidation because of the fans that are behind our team.”
While soccer “really shouldn’t be played that way,” Murthy conceded, it is financially better for the club to at least play, even if the games aren’t in front of fans. “If we don’t finish, the impact will be huge.”
Valencia is trying to mitigate the pain of the shutdown, cutting costs where it can. But like teams in most of Europe’s biggest leagues, it has yet to find a way to reduce its biggest cost: players’ salaries.
In Spain — as in England and Italy — La Liga failed to reach an agreement with the players’ union for a general pay cut. Now, Murthy is directly negotiating with his roster, in talks that have been led by the team’s five captains. It has not been easy.
The club has opened its books to show the players what’s at stake and to persuade them “that we are not trying to sell you a nonsense to cut your wages and take advantage of it,” Murthy said. “In the end, it has to be a situation where it isn’t club against players and players against club.”
While the talks go on, the players remain home — away from their teammates, away from the training field and away from work.
Training sessions at the team’s practice facility have been replaced by a one-hour workout led by Valencia’s fitness trainer through video conferencing. Meals are prepared by a nutritionist and sent to every player on the club’s books, including those in its youth academy. A psychologist is also on hand.
The work-from-home protocol was worked out well in advance of the stoppage, at about the time Murthy’s caution was being ridiculed.
Now, Valencia’s fate is no longer in its hands.
“In the end, the Spanish government has to give the OK,” Murthy said. “That is another great uncertainty.”