Serie A: Inter Milan president Steven Zhang backs empty stadium proposals

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Inter Milan's Europa League last-32 tie against Ludogorets was played behind closed doors at the San Siro in February

Inter Milan president Steven Zhang feels playing matches behind closed doors is the only practical way for football to continue in Italy until the coronavirus is under control.

Inter have had two Serie A games postponed since the outbreak began.

They also played a Europa League tie against Ludogorets behind closed doors at the San Siro on 27 February.

The Coppa Italia semi-final second leg at Napoli on Thursday is their latest match to have been called off.

The Italian government is considering a proposal from the country's football federation for all matches to be played behind closed doors for a month.

“Closing doors but continuing matches is the right thing to do,” Zhang told BBC Sport.

Zhang, 29, was born in Nanjing, a city of over eight million people in eastern China, and has seen how his native country has gone about trying to tackle the coronavirus.

He believes banning large-scale gatherings, as many cities have done in China, has had a positive effect on containing the virus.

Inter were due to play away to Juventus on Sunday, but the game was postponed on the Saturday. They were then offered the chance to play 24 hours later on Monday – with fans being allowed at the game in Juve's Allianz Stadium – a suggestion which was emphatically rejected by Zhang.

“From a moral standpoint, as president of a football club and a manager in an organisation who are involved in these events, I just cannot accept this kind of proposal and I cannot let public health be put in this difficult condition,” he said.

“It doesn't matter what kind of game it is, it doesn't matter if it was 24 hours or 48 hours, we knew the situation was not going to be gone.

“The right thing to do was to reject the proposal. I had to do what was morally correct, even though it was difficult to say no. But we made the right choice and now people realise it was correct.”

Inter took a hard-line approach to the closed-doors game they played. In addition to players, coaches and support staff, the numbers allowed to attend the Ludogorets game were kept to an absolute minimum.

The only media allowed into the San Siro were the host broadcaster and one cameraman from each club.

In China the Suning Group – which Inter are owned by – also own the TV rights to many of the major European leagues, including the Premier League. In an effort to encourage people to stay at home, live matches were made available for free.

“It is important for people not to panic and it feels like many people are doing the right things, like washing hands, which definitely helps, ” said Zhang.

“As a football club, we have a responsibility to deliver the right message. Safety is the highest priority.

“Closing the doors to a match is difficult for many reasons but in the end, in order to continue with the calendar and continue with normal activities, we have to take these decisions.”

Inter staff at the Ludogorets game say it was a weird experience because all the players' shouts could clearly be heard. As a one-off, there was an element of novelty, and Inter were pleased with the 2-1 win.

However, it may prove more difficult for the players to play in front of empty stands over a longer period.

Inter's trip to Juventus is likely to be arranged before the March international break and could have a major bearing on the title.

Inter's best season for some time has them six points behind their long-time rivals with a game in hand – and a further two points adrift of leaders Lazio, who have played two games more.

“You can only judge a season well at the end of it,” said Zhang.

“During a season there are always difficulties, great moments, ups and downs. That is what keeps sports people interested. That is why sport is fascinating.

“It is true we have improved a lot compared with the past. Our coach and players have put so much effort in. Everybody recognises and appreciates that. Our fans and even our competitors have seen a stronger team and a stronger organisation, which is growing.

“But I am not worried closing doors will affect the performance of the team. What I am worried about is putting public safety at risk by doing these kinds of events in front of spectators.”

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This Article originally appeared here

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