Football authorities in England and Europe are braced for a total shutdown of the game until at least September, amid fears that scores of clubs could go out of business and the sport could be sent into meltdown.
It’s understood the Covid-19 outbreak reached such a point of crisis for the sport on Thursday that the leading English bodies received a call direct from the COBRA meeting, where there was an admission the situation on full attendances at stadiums may have been misread.
All games in England’s Premier League, English Football League, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship were on Friday morning postponed until April 4 but a source close to discussions told The Independent that the “idea we are going to be playing by then is ludicrous.”
League competition is scheduled to resume after the international break on that date but the chances of that happening are tiny, and the date is seen by some sources as a mere time-buying exercise.
Uefa are due to meet on Tuesday with 55 member associations, the boards of the European Club Association and the European Leagues and a representative of FIFPro to work out a strategy for moving forward. It is expected that European football’s governing body will postpone the summer’s European championships, suspend the Champions League and propose a continent-wide shutdown of the sport.
Administrators of the game in England had spent the past week following government direction and, as late as Thursday, planned to continue as normal at least until next weekend. Things began to change that afternoon when Whitehall officials contacted the football authorities direct from a COBRA meeting called to coordinate the government response to the crisis. At that point the planners in London were beginning to wonder whether the advice to carry on was misguided. There were concerns from Scotland that the approach was a mistake.
A conference call with the FA hours later still aimed for what was referred to as a “measured” response but Mikel Arteta’s positive test for the virus tipped the balance towards Friday’s decision to suspend matches. The Premier League wanted to continue behind closed doors but the number of players being tested for Covid-19 meant that this was unfeasible.
The decision throws up a number of questions. There are a minority of clubs keen to declare the season null and void and start again after the summer. Figures involved in the talks suggested that this is “unlikely” but creating a framework that will satisfy all the parties involved will be difficult. There is no blueprint or procedure in place to deal with the situation caused by this huge global health scare. The three options appear to be finishing the campaign whenever play resumes, even if it overlaps into next season’s calendar; ending the league in May, even if no more matches take place with trophies, promotion and relegation going to the teams in those positions now; or writing off the entire campaign. The second and third alternatives would likely generate numerous legal challenges.
The clubs are largely in agreement with Friday’s decision but pressure will begin to mount in the coming week as the enormity of the situation begins to unfold. Income streams will dry up but wages still need to be paid. Most Premier League clubs can survive a prolonged layoff but many EFL teams will become vulnerable in the coming weeks.
Many sources fear that scores of lower-league clubs could go out of business without regular matchday income, which makes up a much higher percentage of their revenues. This is one reason why the EFL were said to be particularly intent on finishing the season, for the welfare of their clubs.
Such a situation could see the Premier League come under pressure to offer financial assistance, but the top-division clubs could have additional problems.
Players whose contracts expire in June are placed in a difficult situation, and dealing with the transfer window becomes a much more complex issue.
Uefa are in a position to take the initiative and impose a uniform programme across the European leagues and Tuesday’s meeting will be crucial in mapping out the immediate future.
This is also why Tuesday’s Uefa videoconference is crucial. The fate of the 2019-20 season – and issues like whether Liverpool are declared champions – is almost entirely dependent on whether the governing body decide to annul this Champions League season or merely postpone it.
If postponed, it gives all domestic competitions breathing space to try and complete their own seasons, as all would fall under that umbrella campaign. If annulled, it would mean all issues have to be decided before the planned start of the 2020-21 Champions League, which could create some tough decisions about league placings.
Respite appears to be a long way off, however. Some medical projections suggest that the virus may not spike until midsummer. That would leave football struggling with a huge number of questions and very few answers.
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