Spain prime minister clears way for return to training at start of May

Spain's footballers will be able to begin individual training on May 4 as part of plans announced by the country's prime minister Pedro Sanchez.

Sanchez has outlined a four-stage process for a "gradual, asymmetrical and coordinated" relaxation of Spain's social distancing measures, aiming to reach a "new normality" by the end of June.

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"Professional sportspeople will be able to train individually from May 4," he said in a televised address on Tuesday discussing the country's COVID-19 pandemic response.

In the following phase, which could begin as early as May 11, training in small groups will be permitted in provinces where strict requirements on the number of new coronavirus cases and hospital capacity have been met.

"In the sporting context, the opening of high-performance centres with hygiene measures and increased protection is being considered as well as 'half' training in professional leagues," Pedro Sanchez said.

The situation will be reassessed by Spain's Health Ministry every two weeks to determine when a return to group training, followed by the possibility of playing competitive games, will be permitted.

Spain has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 210,000 confirmed cases and more than 23,000 deaths.

There has been no confirmation yet that the 2019-20 La Liga season, which has been suspended since mid-March, will be able to resume.

The prime minister's comments come on the same day that the Ligue 1 season was effectively cancelled after France's PM said there would be no sporting events in the country until Sept. 1.

La Liga president Javier Tebas questioned the decision made by neighbours France to end their competition early.

"I don't understand why there would more danger in playing football behind closed doors, following La Liga's precautionary measures [protocol], than working in a factory or in an assembly line," he said. "If important economic sectors cannot restart, in a safe and controlled manner, they could end up disappearing.

"That could happen to professional football. In other countries teams are already training, that's the example to follow.''

Spain's National Sports Council sent the country's Health Ministry their proposed guidelines for a return to professional football last Thursday, saying that health authorities would fix a date.

ESPN has reported that La Liga's clubs have been told to expect to play games behind closed doors until January 2021.

Clubs have been warned to adjust their budgets for next year as they face a significant reduction in box office receipts, as well as associated losses such as merchandising sales.

Players have been divided over a return to football, with many expressing concerns that the desire to complete the 2019-20 season -- with La Liga fearing losses of up to €1 billion otherwise -- is being prioritised over their health and safety.

"We must be really careful with everyone's health, because if we make a mistake, we could have serious problems," David Aganzo, the president of players' union AFE, said on Tuesday.

La Liga had proposed to begin COVID-19 testing of players this week, but that process was postponed due to a lack of authorisation from health authorities and some players expressing a reluctance to undergo testing when many health professionals are yet to do so.