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Lauren Barnes is a defender who plays for both Reign FC in the NWSL and Melbourne City in Australia’s W-League. While sports leagues around the world were shutting down due to the coronavirus, the W-League marched ahead, holding its grand final behind closed doors on March 21st (for context, the NBA shut down on March 11th). Melbourne City topped Sydney FC 1-0 to win the game, but as Barnes explains below, it was difficult to get caught up in any celebrations, as she had to catch what might have been the last flight home. 

You’ve had a crazy last few weeks. Basically every sport was shut down, but you guys were playing in the W-League final. Can you walk us through what that was like?

At the time coronavirus hadn’t really hit Australia that bad, so most people there were just living normally. Even in the week leading up to the final, everything was still open. You could easily go to a café, and there would be 25 to 50 people there. It was crazy to me. Obviously, I had family in the U.S., where everyday things were slowly shutting down and all the sports were being cancelled or postponed. So for me, it was just like, this is crazy that we’re even playing, especially because the virus was spiking so fast around the world. I just couldn’t believe it. As a team, we tried to keep our focus on soccer, but that’s pretty hard when there’s a pandemic going on. It was tough, and it was something none of us had ever experienced, or hopefully will ever experience again.

And what was the actual game like? 

I was so drained going into that final. It felt so weird. I was worried about home, and I was worried about Australia, because every other place started off okay, and then there was this rapid domino effect of everything shutting down. I was expecting the same thing to happen in Australia. Obviously, when you’re in the game and you have the adrenaline everything’s fine, but I remember the final whistle blowing and just feeling relief. There were just so many emotions surrounding that game that had nothing to do with soccer. And when it was over, I just felt like this huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Was that because you could just focus on getting home at that point?

Yeah. And because leading up to the game, it was like, don’t touch anything, make sure you’re washing your hands, and disinfect this, and disinfect that. Oh and also focus on your role with the team and make sure you’re ready to perform. I mean, every minute you had to think about so many different things. So once it was over, I could relax a bit and get home and just focus on what’s going on in the world.

Coronavirus came a bit late to Australia, but when did you realize that it was a serious issue? 

I think I always took it seriously because of the situation in the states. Coronavirus might have been slow to hit Australia, but a couple days before the final, things were picking up. It was clear that this was real, that countries were shutting down, that Australia was heading toward a lockdown. We were all watching the news. Flights were being cancelled for the international girls, and I had to move mine up to the day after the final to make sure I got out.

Did players or coaches ever openly question whether the final should happen? 

Credit to [Melbourne] City, but I do think they tried everything possible to make sure we were safe. Managers and coaches were always telling us to reach out if there was anything we needed. The locker room was kept clean, and we had a bunch of rules we had to follow. I felt safe, but at the end of the day, you’ve seen how fast this virus spreads. So I knew in the back of my head that this was something we might not have been really prepared for, no matter how prepared we felt.

People in the US couldn’t believe we were still playing, but it wasn’t a big worry in Australia. There was definitely a disconnect though, because you would go through handshakes and not be allowed to touch each other. But then you’d go play a competitive contact sport, where you’re scoring goals and celebrating with your teammates, and you’re in huddles, and you’re touching other players. I mean, we were doing all this stuff to prevent the spread, but you can’t prevent it if you’re actually playing a game. That was just hard for me to fathom. It didn’t make sense. And it definitely affected people, especially the internationals who didn’t know if they were going to be able to get home.