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France kicks off fans’ return to elite European soccer

LE HAVRE, France (AP) — For the first time since the coronavirus shut down sports and chased away spectators, fans returned Sunday to elite European soccer, turning out in their thousands to see Paris Saint-Germain’s superstars back on a field.

For their return to work, PSG’s marquee attacking duo of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe sported face masks in red, white and blue PSG colors on their way into the arena and wore messages of thanks for health workers on their kit.

“Now it’s for real … we’re back,” Mbappe tweeted before kickoff against Le Havre. The exhibition match in the Normandy port city was the first encounter in front of fans to feature one of Europe’s elite clubs since the outbreak erupted.

Only 5,000 people were allowed inside Le Havre’s 25,000-seat Stade Oceane to see the French League 2 club take on PSG’s star-studded squad, with Neymar and Mbappe in the starting XI.

PSG showed little mercy on the field with Mauro Icardi and Neymar both scoring twice. That rare sound of real fans erupting into cheers at their team scoring was heard nine times as PSG beat Le Havre 9-0.

Upper tiers of seating were empty. Spectators had to wear face masks to get into the arena, although many then took them off once settled in their seats. Families and friends sat together in groups but groups stayed separated. Ball carriers wore masks and gloves. Loudspeakers broadcast appeals for social distancing. Pitch-side photographers were made to step with their shoes into trays of disinfectant.

PSG players had the words “Tous unis” (All united) and “Merci” (Thank you) on their kit to show appreciation for health workers.

Among Europe’s top 5 leagues, only France is letting spectators back into soccer stadiums. Germany finished its season without fans but the league and clubs are exploring plans to play 2020-21 with fans. Play has resumed without fans in Spain, England and Italy.

France stopped its league and never resumed it in the wake of its outbreak. The return of fans comes as the country’s death toll this week surpassed 30,000 and amid growing concerns of a possible second wave of infections.

Football matches are blamed for having helped speed the initial spread of the pandemic across Europe. In Serbia, matches played in front of thousands of fans despite the pandemic were followed last month by players and the CEO of Red Star Belgrade testing positive for the coronavirus.

The 24-man squad picked by Paris coach Thomas Tuchel was gearing up after four months of inactivity for its last competitive matches of the season. PSG plays the finals of the French Cup and the League Cup later this month and the quarterfinals of the Champions League in August.

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Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

By THIBAULT CAMUS and JOHN LEICESTER

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