A football manager once said that the sport is the most important of the least important things in life. Perhaps no time is a greater example of that than right now, with the world going into various states of lockdown because of the Coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand, every sensible person understands that that makes complete sense, with lives taking precedent over football.
Yet on the other hand there is also a tacit acknowledgement that football really is important to people in its own way. It is a sport that brings people together from all walks of life, yet it has been forced to stop as governments around the globe attempt to get to grips with a virus that is on course to kill a quarter of a million people in the coming weeks. Where, then, does that leave the world’s greatest game?
The first place to start is with the domestic leagues. There was a brief moment after football was suspended when it looked as though they could all be cancelled, but a meeting of the sport’s top brass has nipped that idea in the bud. Here’s a look at what’s happening around the Football League.
The Premier League
Ask a Liverpool supporter what should happen to the top-flight and they’ll tell you unequivocally that it should be allowed to run its course. That’s not overly surprising, given that the Reds were just two wins away from securing their first title of the Premier League era. Ask supporters of other clubs, on the other hand, and you’ll get a mixture of responses. That’s something that was demonstrated by Karren Brady recently.
My point was safety of fans, players, staff come 1st & if the remaining games just cannot be played the only fair & reasonable thing is to declare season null and void. Who knows who would have gone down or come up if the PL/EFL games have not actually been played in full? 2/2 https://t.co/JTQukQv30Y
— Lady Karren Brady (@karren_brady) March 15, 2020
The West Ham Vice-Chair was quite vocal in her opinion that the top-flight of English football should be made ‘null and void’, which coincidentally would have done her club a massive favour given that the Hammers are only outside of the relation zone on goal difference. The fact that they looked destined to be relegated presumably never entered Brady’s head as she suggested that the league be cancelled.
Most sensible people immediately called that out as a nonsense idea. In many ways, Liverpool are actually the easiest side to sort out on account of the fact that they’re so far clear at the top of the Premier League table. It’s issues such as which teams will finish in the European places and which ones will be relegated that are much tougher to figure out with the season being paused when it has.
Just as troublesome would be the idea of just ending the season where it stood when play was suspended. There is far too much still up in the air apart from, ironically, the title. Whilst opposition fans might like to suggest that the Reds were on the precipice of a collapse, it’s simply unthinkable that a team that has won 27 of the 29 games it’s played so far this season would not be able to win 2 of its remaining 9.
When a halt was called to proceedings, Chelsea sat in 4th on 48 points with Manchester United 5th on 45. Given that the potential ban for Manchester City in the Champions League could mean 5th place will get entry into Europe’s premier competition, it’s fair to assume that any side that could catch United would be in with a shout. With nine, and in some places ten, games still to play, that’s a lot of teams.
Burnley and Crystal Palace in 10th and 11th might well feel that, sat only six points off the Red Devils, they could have had a shot if they’d been able to put a good run together. Fanciful though it may be given how many teams they’d have to leapfrog, it’s an argument that they’d no doubt have been willing to make if it had come down to it. There are certainly European places up for grabs for the Europa League.
Then when it comes to relegation, Norwich are bottom of the league but they’re only six point off safety. With many of the teams at the bottom of the league still to play each other, the Canaries might have felt that going down wasn’t a forgone conclusion. Equally Aston Villa and Bournemouth on 25 and 27 points respectively will definitely have felt as though they could have earned a reprieve in the remaining games.
The point is, cancelling the season was never going to be an easy thing to do, nor was ending things as they stood. Leicester City and Manchester United would both feel that they are in a position to play in the Champions League, Manchester City’s ban dependent, so they’d be fuming if it was cancelled and things returned to where they were last season. It would almost certainly have opened the Premier League up to legal cases they wouldn’t want to fight.
Thank goodness, therefore, that the Premier League confirmed that the season will be finished, regardless of how long that takes. The top-flight has scrapped a rule that says all games must be concluded by the 1st of June. That combined with UEFA’s decision to push Euro 2020 back to 2021 has given the league some room to breathe. It means that there is no limit on when the season can be concluded.
As things currently stand, no football will be played until the 30th of April. Even that, though, seems like a stop-gap and things will be reassessed closer to the time. Given that the current scientific thinking is that the peak of the virus won’t hit the United Kingdom for another four weeks, no one really knows what is going to happen. What it does, though, is give the Premier League time to plan.
The Football League
Outside of the English top-flight there is just as much to play for. Leeds United look set for a return to the Premier League as they sit top of the table thanks to a 1 point lead over West Bromwich Albion, but the Baggies would also be guaranteed promotion if that’s where they finish the season. Meanwhile, Fulham, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Preston sit in the play-off places as they chase promotion.
It’s for that reason that the Championship faces the same sort of trouble as the Premier League in terms of figuring out how to finish off the season. All 24 clubs held a video conference this week in which what should happen was discussed. They agreed unanimously that the 2019-2020 campaign should be concluded, if at all possible, once the Coronavirus outbreak has run its course and normality returns.
The same rules are in place for League One and League Two, with the decision taken on Thursday to push football back to the 30th of April being applied to ‘all professional football’. It might well lead to disappointment for the Dog & Duck’s Sunday League starting 11, but it’s an important moment for football as a whole. These unprecedented times are calling for unprecedented measures, after all.
There is a loose day of the 30th of June being put into calendars as for when things much be finished. That’s because that is the date that FIFA want it all to be over so that they can conclude their own competitions. How much leeway there is with that date, though, remains to be seen. It’s also noteworthy that the 30th of June is the date that most footballers’ contracts run until, allowing them to move clubs.
If football isn’t concluded by the 30th of June then something will have to happen to players’ contracts, which leads to an extremely tricky situation. FIFPro, the world players’ union, has suggested to FIFA that an extension of a couple of months to contracts would make sense, but the hope is very much that this won’t have to happen. It’s why FIFA would like everything tied up nicely by then.
It’s also tricky because of deals with kit suppliers that tend to run to that date. If Leeds United were to want a new kit supplier for next season, for example, then it would likely come into place on the 1st of July. If they win the league and change kit suppliers, would they then lift the trophy in the new or the old kit? On top of that, if football finished on 30th of June then next season shouldn’t be too badly impacted.
The reality is that absolutely nobody in football right now knows what’s going to happen. It’s worth bearing in mind that it was only a week between teams gearing up for the weekend’s fixtures and Boris Johnson declaring that schools would be closed, so things are moving extremely quickly. Right now the hope is that all of England’s professional football leagues will finish, but so much could change to stop that.
The conclusion of the various leagues in England take priority over everything, which is why most suggestions of how to get them finished include either cancelling or pushing back cup football. The League Cup final took place towards the end of November, with Manchester City narrowly beating Aston Villa in a pulsating match. That only leaves the FA Cup in terms of top-level cup competitions.
The FA Cup
When the draw for the quarter-final was made at the beginning of March it threw up the following ties:
- Sheffield United v Arsenal
- Newcastle United v Manchester City
- Norwich City v Manchester United
- Leicester City v Chelsea
The matches were scheduled to take place over the weekend of the 21st of March, but that’s obviously no longer the case given that professional football in England is suspended until April the 30th. The big question at the moment is whether or not it will be resumed at all this season. Right now, the likelihood is that it won’t, but it all depends on when the various leagues are able to resume and when they will be finished.
The world’s oldest cup competition will have to take a backseat to the conclusion of the Premier League, which means that cancelling it altogether might be the only option. There have been suggestions that the FA Cup final could take the place of the Community Shield as the season opener in August, whilst others have put forward the idea that the remaining games could be played in a ‘mini-tournament’.
The Issue is that the Football Association, which is responsible for the running of the FA Cup, are in the same situation as the Premier League and Football League: they have no idea how long football will be suspended for. Even if it can be resumed in time to allow the FA Cup to be finished this season, it’s almost certainly going to have to be scrapped next year to allow that campaign to finish if it starts late.
Champions League & Europa League
UEFA consider the Champions League to be amongst the organisation’s most important assets, so it’s hardly a surprise that they’re keen to get this season’s competition finished if at all possible. There’s also the fact that a Champions League place for the next campaign is given to the Europa League winners, so that competition should be concluded also. There are still question marks over whether that can happen, though.
Getting domestic competitions off the ground will be difficult enough, but doing so with a continental tournament that will require travel between countries will be nigh on impossible. Even if the games are played behind closed doors it will involve travel, which alone isn’t easy right now. Add in the fact that fans of different clubs will travel even if they can’t get into the ground if they’re able to and you can see the problem.
Given the prestige of the two European competitions, it’s unlikely that either will be scrapped altogether without a fight. Whilst the truth about cup football is that it can be scrapped much easier than the league side of the game because it doesn’t matter who wins for next season’s competition to commence, UEFA will be loathe to call a halt to proceedings if it can be avoided in any way, shape or form.
At the moment, the Champions League and Europa League are only at the Last 16 stage, meaning that there’s a huge amount of football to be played before either competition can be concluded. Given that the rounds are played over two legs, it seems impossible that it will be completed right now. There have been solutions of matches being played over one leg, however, that are being considered.
Another suggestion is that a mini-tournament is played by the teams left in the competitions to decide upon the winners of each. There are six match days remaining for both tournaments, so the idea of playing them in Istanbul or Gdansk, the host cities of both competitions’ finals, is appealing. Once again, though, this will involve a large amount of travel for clubs across a continent that, right now, is mostly shutdown.
If you haven’t guessed by now then there’s no hope for you, but the simple truth is that there is simply no way of knowing what will happen with the Champions League and Europa League right now. Both competitions matter a huge amount to UEFA, but both are far more complex logistically to organise than domestic competitions and the domestic competitions are a nightmare to organise logistically.
On Tuesday the 17th of March, UEFA released a statement confirming that priority would be given to domestic competitions and any attempt to complete them. In order to facilitate this, UEFA announced that the Euro 2020 tournament, which was due to take place this summer, will be postponed until the same time next year. The hope is that the Coronavirus crisis will be over by June and July 2021.
Obviously there’s no guarantee that the pandemic will be over by then, but football’s governing body in Europe has to do something and this is what they’ve decided to do. It’s not just Euro 2020 that has been put on the back-burner either. All national team matches of both men’s and women’s teams, including friendlies, have been put on hold ‘until further notice’. Friendlies scheduled for March will be played in June, if they can.
The decision over the postponement of Euro 2020 was one that was agreed by UEFA’s Executive Committee after videoconference meetings between the presidents and general secretaries of the 55 national associations. Alexander Čeferin, the President of UEFA, said, “The health of fans, staff and players has to be our number one priority…It was important that, as the governing body of European football, UEFA led the process and made the biggest sacrifice”.
UEFA’s decision is based on ‘expert advice’, with the organisation regularly liaising with the World Health Organisation. The idea at the moment is that next summer the competition will maintain the same format, being played at venues across twelve host countries in order to celebrate the European Championship’s sixtieth anniversary. It will also still be called Euro 2020 when it takes place, despite it not being in that year.
Those that have bought tickets and hospitality tickets for Euro 2020 will get them refunded in full if they’re unable to attend the tournament when it takes place in 2021. Obviously that will be difficult to figure out, given that people won’t know whether they’ll be able to go to the rearranged fixture until the dates are confirmed. There’s also the fact that UEFA has other competitions lined up, with the following needing to be rearranged:
- UEFA Nations League finals
- UEFA Women’s EURO
- UEFA European Under-21 Championship
For now, it’s going to be a matter of waiting to see what happens next. The reality is that until a vaccine is created it’s difficult to see how mass gatherings will be allowed to take place. The virus is not going to disappear of its own accord, so limiting the manner in which people are able to see and spend time with each other is the only way of guaranteeing a limit to its spread. How long that will last for is the great unknown.