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Italian sports leaders following government lead on virus

ROME – Holding soccer games behind closed doors without fans in attendance is a problematic solution, Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malagò said Sunday as authorities scrambled to contain a rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country and a third death from the virus.

CONI, the Olympic committee, oversees all sports in Italy.

Four matches in the top Italian league scheduled for Sunday were postponed after the government ordered a ban on all sporting events in Lombardy and Veneto - the regions in the heart of the outbreak - and later Turin.

Besides refunding vast numbers of tickets -- some 60,000 fans were slated to attend Inter Milan’s game against Sampdoria on Sunday at the San Siro stadium in Milan before it was postponed -- Malagò noted Italian fans’ tendency to go stand outside stadiums where matches are played behind closed doors and cheer on their team from the parking lot.

“It’s going to cause a public safety issue,” Malagò told Sky Italia. “That’s particularly problematic at this moment when police are busy with other situations and won’t be able to stand outside a soccer stadium.

“It’s a matter of public health,” Malagò added.

Italian authorities announced that they are shutting down Venice's famed carnival events in a bid to stop the spread of the virus, as numbers of infected persons in the country have soared to at least 152 - the largest amount of cases outside Asia.

Veneto regional Gov. Luca Zaia said the shutdown will begin Sunday evening. Carnival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the lagoon city, would have run through Tuesday.

Nearly all of Italy's confirmed cases are clustered in the north, with 110 in Lombardy and others in the regions of Veneto, Emilia-Romagnia and Piedmont. Only two cases have been found in the south, a Chinese couple in Rome earlier this month.

The death on Sunday of an elderly woman, who was already suffering from cancer and who contracted the virus, raised the nation's death toll to three, said Lombardy regional official Giulio Gallera. All three deaths occurred in the north.

The Atalanta vs. Sassuolo and Hellas Verona vs. Cagliari Serie A games were also called off while Torino’s match at home to Parma was postponed hours before kickoff on Sunday, following new cases in Piedmont.

Parma, which had already traveled to Turin, spent Sunday practicing at Juventus’ training facility.

The only Serie A games to go ahead Sunday were Lazio’s 3-2 win at Genoa and Roma’s 4-0 home win against Lecce in the capital.Some fans at the games wore protective face masks.

Also postponed: Milan’s game against Fiorentina in the Serie A women’s league; a women’s Six Nations rugby match between Italy and Scotland scheduled for Legnano near Milan; as well as a long list of lower-league and children’s games across all sports.

There was no immediate announcement on when the postponed Serie A matches might be made up.

“It is right to take precautionary measures and understand where the problem starts,” Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi said. “We must not underestimate what is happening, football is moving in the right direction.

“The answer isn’t playing matches behind closed doors, because the fans are the heart of our sport. It is right to share football with the fans, we need to find an alternative solution for this problem.”

There are also concerns over Inter’s Europa League match against Ludogorets, with the second leg scheduled for Thursday in Milan. The Bulgarian side has written to UEFA to request more information about the situation.

Juventus, which is based in Turin, is scheduled to host Inter next Sunday in the return of former coach Antonio Conte.

“Right now, the sports world must not try to go its own way,” Malagò said. “It absolutely needs to share the indications of the authorities, first and foremost the government. Dialogue is ongoing with all of the clubs affected.

“We have to take it one day at a time,” Malagò added. “If someone tells you today that they have an answer to what will happen, they are lying.”

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf