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Spain's soccer stars get back to work: "Returning was a strange feeling"

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"It looked like a movie," said Luuk de Jong. Two months after Spain's footballers were told to go home and not leave the house, they were back to training -- back to work, really -- but nothing was the same anymore. The places they had left behind were not the places they returned to, the scene shifted. Despite the relief, the enthusiasm, the hope, there was something disconcerting about it, something almost surreal.

"Everything was arranged with the masks and the gloves, and everybody is walking like this and they're cleaning everything, controlling everything, and it was all strange," the Sevilla striker said.

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Strange is the word, repeated often as players look back on these past three weeks and the steps they've taken toward the return of La Liga. Today, Spain's clubs will train with a full squad for the first time. By the time they get back to playing -- scheduled for June 11 -- it will have been three months since sessions were suspended and everything went into lockdown. They're almost there now, a new normal that doesn't feel entirely normal.

"I'm dead, mate," read the text message from one Spain international the day he got back to work -- but this isn't just about fitness; it's as much mind as body. At training grounds everywhere, the rules have changed. Players worked alone, a chair for a dressing room, trainers swapped for boots pitch-side as if playing in the local park. They arrived in mask, gloves and their kit. They left in their kit, too, with no loitering and no showering until they get home.

"Returning was a strange feeling after so long," said Real Betis forward Borja Iglesias. "The difference between the day you left and the day you return is big: the protocols, analysis, controls, the whole process makes a real impact. You have all this infrastructure and you can't use any of it.

"It reminded me of when I was a kid: I'd play and my parents would pick me up, still in my kit, and take me home to change there."

But at least they're back. After two months, they needed it.

"The night before the state of alarm, I ate with friends. One is Italian, and he said, 'This is the last time,' but when it actually happens you think, 'This can't be,'" Valencia midfielder Carlos Soler recalled. "It's going to be seven days, 14, but it gets worse and worse, you see the numbers going up and realise the magnitude. And two months on, we were still locked down. We'd been shut indoors, so going back was a relief, even in those conditions. You're outside in the fresh air, and although everyone's in a mask, distanced, at least you can see them. Working again makes you happy."

It's different work physically and emotionally -- a vital change. As Villarreal's Alberto Moreno put it: "The grass here is not the same as the floor of your home."

Soler speaks for more footballers than you might imagine: "I don't have a garden space; I live in a flat. I had to buy a treadmill, a static bike, a load of gym equipment."

"We need a ball and a goalpost," Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo said.

Another player who lives in an apartment wasn't even allowed out for a jog when the government first permitted exercise: His club refused.

"Real training is totally different," said Roberto Torres, midfielder for Osasuna. "However hard you work at home, it's not the same. I realised when I got back: your joints, your muscles, everything."

The head, especially.

"People say this a 'preseason,' but it's not," Torres added "In the summer, you rest, disconnect and come back with a clear head. This time, all the uncertainty, not knowing if you'll play again, is on your mind. You're stuck at home reading the news, and every day is different. One day, we'll play; the next, it's impossible. You can't help thinking: What if all this work is for nothing? You can disconnect."

The challenge on returning to training was, said Villarreal's fitness coach José Romero, to reconnect: "Getting them used to new stimuli," as he put it. Just being there is the greatest stimulus of all.

"Above all, there was satisfaction at returning," said Real Sociedad winger Mikel Oyarzabal. "Maybe you don't appreciate it during the season, but when something like this happens, you reevaluate that: You realise what it means to be there every day with the group."

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"It was a huge relief to get onto the pitch," Torres said. "Just having someone there who's planned a session and pushes you changes everything, even in that first week when it's all individual physical work. But it was strange, given the prohibition and obligations imposed on us. And there's someone watching us, making sure the protocol was applied ..."

Ah, the "spies."

"They're there every day, part of the cycle now," said Oyarzabal. One coach admitted trying to find ways of escaping their gaze, inventing excuses to stand in the middle of drills and talk to his players, hiding behind those inflatable "footballers" for a word, aware that he won't be allowed converse for long afterward.

"It's a bit weird, but it's for everyone's good," Iglesias said. "He's given us advice, too. When we went into bigger group training, for example, he told us not to let the ball being used by one group get used by another. And you need reminders like that. The first few days, there's so much information, so many instructions in the protocol, that it's impossible to take it all in. You have loads of questions: What can I do? What can't I do? The club had staff there to explain it and guide us through, too. It's getting better, but the first few days were odd."

If there was one instruction above all, it was: Don't get close. Footballers work with 25 men of similar ages and ideas every day. Suddenly, overnight, they found themselves alone. Isolation, most agree, was the hardest part.

"My work means nothing without my teammates," Iglesias said. "Companionship is vital in any job, but I think in ours, it goes even further." At last, they were together ... but still apart. In the first phase of training after their return, teammates were visible but not there to be spoken to.

"That social thing is vital for all of mankind," De Jong said. "You come back, see someone and the first thought is: 'Should I give you a hug or not?' Like an elbow or something? Even having to think is strange."

For Moreno, containing himself was especially hard. "I'm the kind of person who's always joking, grabbing people, messing about," he said with a laugh.

"It was hard to 'be with them' when you can't get close. But at least seeing them there, a few metres away, gave us strength," Torres said. "It even happened to me during lockdown at the supermarket. You see a teammate, you go to say hello, then you stop yourself, stay back. It was unreal, like you're living in a film. That happened again when we got back, but they told us no. The protocol is very strict."

It remained that way even once teams moved on to sessions of up to 10 players per group. "Personally, I find it a bit odd: you can't shake hands or give a teammate a hug, but then on the pitch, there's contact, you're close, touching, defending," Oyarzabal said.

Things were improving, though. "That week alone was hard: You've got no one to pass a ball to," said Leganés defender Roberto Rosales.

"A wall returning your pass is not the same as a teammate doing it," said Soler, "but as the groups get bigger, it feels more like football, more normal."

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Only normality is ... well, abnormal. Emotionally, this has been unusual. For Valencia, those feelings were particularly acute. They played Atalanta in Milan, focal point of the virus, and then behind closed doors at Mestalla before lockdown. They had more COVID-19 cases than any Spanish club. (Headlines emerged over the weekend that the Atalanta manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, had tested positive prior to their second game against Valencia, thus increasing their exposure.)

"In Italy, they took our temperatures, but there really wasn't anything else out of the ordinary, and no one was scared or worried," Soler admitted. "There was an odd atmosphere for the second game, and no one knew what would happen. When you look back on it from this distance, maybe it wasn't right to play -- and maybe the same is true of the first leg -- but no one realised that then. There were other events taking place. And all those who tested positive were asymptomatic, so it didn't have the emotional impact it might have. The fact that we have no positives now shows we handled things the right way."

The fear subsides.

"The first few days, you could feel the tension, the sense there's something there," Iglesias said. "But that's been overcome. You turn up and everyone's in gloves and masks, but once you get onto the pitch and compete, it's like always. Contact normalises everything."

Oyarzabal said: "With time it goes. We have to be alert, the virus hasn't gone, but we're getting back to normality."

That's training, but what about matches? Torres thinks for a moment. "I think it could happen [that players don't play with the same aggression]," he concedes. "Some may twice about contact, if not consciously. But that would be a mistake, detrimental to the team, so I hope none of my team mates have that fear."

"People working in supermarkets are taking more risks than us," Rosales says.

De Jong insists the fear has evaporated: "You still see the coaches walking round with masks and gloves on, which is odd, but we're all tested and the mind is just on playing football and getting fit for the restart." What he does wonder is whether playing in empty stadiums may impact how the game is played: it's hard to imagine the Seville derby being as fierce without fans.

"Sometimes you start a game aggressively with the fans singing and you do it also for them. It's cool to get opposition fans silenced too: it's a good feeling when you hear them moaning. That's part of the game definitely so it is going to be quite different."

"If anyone is going to be hit by not having fans, it is us," says Torres. El Sadar, the Osasuna stadium, has a huge influence on the team, their performance an extension of the passion in the stands.

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There's another consequence to empty stadiums, Iglesias laughs. "You use the excuse that you can't hear the manager anymore." What players say will be heard too, insults and all. "We'll have to measure our words," says Leganes midfielder Recio.

Those are the small details being considered now, a good sign. So the games are close, but how close are players to being ready?

"Pfff," De Jong replies. "That's a good question." On Monday, there will be full training sessions. Across the country. entire squads will work together for the first time and the week after that La Liga begins. No friendlies -- something Torres hadn't thought about until the physio mentioned it -- and straight into the competition.

"It doesn't make sense because of all the health measures but it would help to play a game or so to get the rhythm. When a season begins, there are 38 games, some margin for error. Now it's eleven; two mistakes and you're in trouble," he says.

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"Most drills can be done now but there are still things missing: we still can't play 11 vs. 11, face to face," Oyarzabal says. "When we go into the final phase, I think we'll play full matches at least a couple of times. I didn't expect [prime minister Pedro] Sánchez to say we could go back so fast. But if we're going to get this finished, the sooner the better. Football's return will be a liberation. People have missed it. No one likes them not being there but it had to be done for safety. Hopefully we can get them back soon."

"What really moves football is the fans' passions, the way they live it, and having a stadium on your side really makes a difference but I think we'll learn to enjoy it," Iglesias says.

It's getting nearer. The final phase begins today and the stakes get higher. What if it unravels, what if something goes wrong? They have come all this way; just a little further now.

"There will be nerves but there's no need to be afraid," Soler says. "We're close, and hopefully we can get there and people can enjoy watching football again."