The Beautiful Game: keeping spectators, players and communities safe


With the summer season approaching, excitement is building among people to once again attend major sporting events, such as tennis tournaments, football matches, horse races and cycling competitions. Declining trends in reported cases and deaths due to COVID-19 in some countries of the WHO European Region are encouraging governments and sports organizers to restart events that bring together large numbers of people.

Throughout this pandemic, countries have been facing a delicate balance between protecting their people’s health while minimizing socioeconomic damage. However, there is no zero risk of infection. Last year’s experience showed us that reopening societies too early and rapidly can result in the resurgence of cases that will also create new socioeconomic problems. WHO’s recently released considerations for countries in the European Region will help them to take decisions with a risk-based approach about if, when and how to allow travel and gatherings of people.

Applying high caution

Sports events, such as the UEFA European Football Championship, can attract a large number of domestic and international visitors coming together at stadiums, and gathering before and after the tournaments themselves. Increased interactions might be at fan zone activities, celebrations, airports, with the local community, including on public transport and other “pinch points” where people congregate in large numbers. Across Europe, fans will also meet to watch the games and socialize with other fans in sports bars or in designated sites for fans.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, new variants of concern in circulation and many people still awaiting vaccination in countries throughout the European Region, WHO recommends that countries of the European Region exert high caution in the following ways:

  • Coordinate the decision-making process around an event with all stakeholders and, in particular, with the event organizers in an inclusive, transparent and open way.
  • Rethink the need for international travel and the necessity to organize mass gathering events where spectators attend in person if community transmission is ongoing.
  • Use a risk-based approach to decide whether to hold, modify, postpone or cancel mass gatherings.
  • Enhance public health and social measures if events do take place, not just in competition venues, but also outside in places and on transport used by fans and the host community.

Using a “risk-based approach”

The decision to hold major sporting events sits with national governments and organizers. If a country is considering hosting a sports event, WHO recommends that authorities and organizers carry out a continuous risk assessment placing the health of spectators, athletes, delegates and, importantly, hosting communities as priority. Risk assessments should be carried out before coming to any decision to host an event, and continuously revised before it begins and during the event.

Enhancing public health and social measures

If a host country and the event organizer jointly decide to allow international spectators to participate in an event, risk mitigation measures should be considered, particularly bearing in mind the spread of new COVID-19 variants. Such measures should include the following:

  • enhanced testing in cities hosting the event(s);
  • coordinated contact-tracing between the visitor's country of origin and the game hosting country
  • prioritized vaccination for at-risk groups, not special groups of people such as athletes or spectators;
  • targeted risk communication to travellers to inform their decisions to travel and minimize risks.

On request, the WHO Regional Office for Europe can provide tools for conducting risk assessments, training and simulation exercises and conduct event-based monitoring of the COVID-19 situation in the host countries, in collaboration with national health authorities.

This article was amended on 28/05/2021 to remove a quote which was included in error.