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Scientific study claims ‘low risk’ of COVID-19 infection during a football match

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Danish scientists claim football is relatively safe, see no problem in playing

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

An as-yet unvetted and unpublished new study claims that players spend an average of just one and a half minutes in close contact with another player during a 90-minute football match.

Thus, these scientists “see no problem” with playing — they make no claims about training, as that was not studied — as long as other restrictions are strictly followed. These measures include players not using dressing rooms (dressing and showering at home), avoiding any group celebrations (or, presumably, surrounding the referee and the like), and following basic hygiene protocols like washing hands, coughing into sleeves, and not spitting.

As with any study, there are limitations to the data studied and interpreted. The study analyzed just 14 games from the Danish top division, and the average number includes goalkeepers as well, whose contact time is about 4-5x lower than the average outfield player’s.

Still, Danish health officials define “relevant contact” as 15 minutes within 2 meters, and the longest measured relevant contact in the study was 657 seconds, or about 11 minutes. Those numbers apparently do include players entering areas vacated by other players a few seconds after — i.e. taking into account the idea of a “release stream” as the infection sources move and run about.

Obviously, an infection can happen well inside of 15 minutes as well — that’s not a magic number — but the name of the game is minimizing contact and these numbers claim that in this game, the contact is fairly minimal in fact. Football, NOT a contact sport in our socially distanced world, you heard it here first!

That’s not to say that everyone’s going to go out and start playing straight away — nor should they — but according to the report in the Danish science journal Videnskab, the Danish FA has “warmly welcomed” the findings and will be taking them into consideration when discussing the league’s restart plans.

“The important thing for us here was to find a concrete figure, which can then be discussed further instead of discussing on the basis of presumptions, or on the basis of how the population moves around other parts of society. The football players want to start playing and someone has to decide if they have to. Then maybe this can be used for now.”

-Thomas Bull Andersen; source: Videnskab via Google Translate

Denmark have been in lockdown since March 11 and are currently mulling over proposals to resume football by the end of May. The country have fewer than 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with a death count under 500, making them one of the least worst hit areas of Europe.

Regardless of the study’s veracity or its findings, the overall situation remains as complicated as ever, with no perfect answers. But as we hope that any decision that’s made is made with good science behind it — in California, this has been the mantra of the governor, for example — here we have some actual science to consider.

Unfortunately, this study, even if considered, answers only a very narrow question — and one that shouldn’t really matter if players are tested regularly anyway — but it’s one answer that we do have.