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How UEFA managed the Return to Play


With the UEFA Return to Play Protocol discontinued as COVID-19 abates, we look back at how European football handled the pandemic and what the guidance is now.

The European club football season was successfully concluded  in August 2020
The European club football season was successfully concluded in August 2020 UEFA via Getty Images

UEFA led the way among the world's sporting organisations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and, in August 2020, resumed its competitions.

Vital to that was the creation of the UEFA Return to Play Protocol which established the operational and medical guidelines for staging matches in European competitions – a unique challenge considering the evolution of the virus and countries' own specific and changing approaches to handling it.

Current guidance

UEFA has now published a COVID recommendation document on best practice hygiene measures and behaviours.

The decision to discontinue the protocol at the UEFA Executive Committee meeting in January 2023 was taken given the current epidemiological situation, the rate of vaccination as well as current overall developments around Europe. The approach and timing was discussed and evaluated with the UEFA Protocol Advisory Panel. A COVID recommendations document has now been published as a reminder of best practice hygiene measures and behaviours.

Nevertheless, nearly three years since the 2019/20 season was paused, evident to the protocol's success was the spirit of collaboration and solidarity across the football and governmental spectrum. That allowed the return to play and the consequent monitoring and amending of the conditions under which European football could be played. This is how UEFA managed the pandemic and return to play.

The Return to Play

15 Mar–9 Jul 2020 UEFA's response to the pandemic as competitions were paused or postponed, and plans were made to resume. 5 Aug 2020 UEFA releases its first version of the Return to Play Protocol ahead of the resumption of its elite club competitions. 5–30 Aug 2020 Protocol allows successful conclusion of club competitions in mini-tournaments hosted in Portugal, Germany and Spain. 5 Nov 2020 61,851 COVID-19 tests were shown to be administered between 5 August and 15 October. The total reached more than 187,000 tests by the end of the season. 1 Dec 2020 Latest version of reshaped 2020/21 match calendar with space created for all senior club and national team competitions. 16 Feb 2021 Official data show the success of UEFA's protocol – just 12 games called off out of more than 1,000 scheduled following the return to play. 17 Mar 2021 'A Year Under COVID-19' UEFA.tv documentary released. 1 Jun 2021 Ahead of UEFA EURO 2020, the latest version of the protocol is released. 15 Jun 2021 As EURO kicks off, a review of how funds from the tournament helped European football in its time of need. 6 Sep 2021 v5 of the protocol is released ahead of the new club season with away fans returning and the testing programme amended. 15 Sep 2021 Return of the women's youth competitions. 19 Jan–6 Feb 2022 Protocol allows for staging of indoor tournament UEFA Futsal EURO. 9 Feb 2022 As COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, further versions of the protocol are released with new conditions for PCR testing and reciprocal home-and-away testing where required. 17 May 2022 A return to certain onsite operational procedures is allowed in v7 of the protocol. 1–3 Jul 2022 UEFA Women's Futsal EURO played in Porto after being postponed twice (COVID and Russia's invasion of Ukraine). 5 Sep 2022 Changes to reflect the relaxing of measures by relevant local and national authorities were present in v8 of the protocol. 25 Jan 2023 Acting on advice from the UEFA Protocol Advisory Panel, the UEFA Executive Committee decide to discontinue the protocol, with COVID recommendations and best practice document published. Present day