Should the football season be cancelled due to Coronavirus?
Coronavirus Crisis: We look at what English football should do next during this very difficult period.
We are currently living in unprecedented times. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said the Coronavirus outbreak is the biggest issue facing Great Britain, indeed the world, since the second world war. It is now the norm to see the usual bustling streets of London completely empty and no items left on supermarket shelves. You can even get onto the tube (at least the services that are running) without any fuss at rush hour.
The whole of society has been greatly affected and this of course includes football. The beautiful game, the most popular sport in this country, faces huge questions about what comes next. Yesterday (March 19th) it was announced the freeze on the 2019-20 English football season will remain in place until at least 30 April, whilst the cut-off date for the campaign to finish has been pushed back “indefinitely”. We have touched on the impact this could have on lower league clubs, which you can read here, but since this has developed it is becoming more apparent there is a big chance the season might not finish. But what would be the fairest way to go about things? Should the season reach a conclusion when we emerge from this crisis, should it finish as it is or should it be cancelled completely? Each outcome has several questions, and none are ideal.
The fact is, nobody knows at the moment if the season can re-start, and if it can, what dates would be suitable. There are so many permutations and things to consider, it is mind boggling imagining having to make such decisions. Last week, Fifa, UEFA, the Premier League and EFL held several meetings to try and come up with a plan to navigate what will be extremely choppy waters ahead. Several plans were drawn up, but until we get a clearer picture of how society might look in the coming months ahead, it is very difficult to suggest anything with confidence.
What has been done so far?
We know that Euro 2020 has been postponed until 2021 and that in England all professional football is on hold until 30 April at the earliest. We have also discovered that the desire amongst most clubs in the Premier League and EFL is for the current season to come to a natural conclusion.
The biggest problem with this is potential knock on effects and dates. The governing bodies and clubs need to find out how far the season can be pushed back in order for it to complete. There have been reports that all of the leagues in Europe are aiming for a complete finish of 30 June.
How realistic is a June finish?
There is a reason June 30 has been put forward as a key date. This is when players contracts end, the current rules mean players have been able to sign pre-contract terms with clubs in other countries since 1 January. So, we could be in a situation where if the season extends past 30 June, key players will be out of contract and wouldn’t be playing in potentially huge matches for some clubs. It seems there will have to be some temporary changing of the rules as currently it seems far from feasible to continue past June 30 with things as they are.
It isn’t just contracts though. Many lower league clubs have several loan players who make up large parts of their squads. Many will be loaned from teams further up the football pyramid and in some cases these loan players will be key players of the team. Again, nobody quite knows how this will work in terms of them returning to their parent clubs on June 30. It is clear something will have to be done, and extensions granted.
Any extension to the season beyond the end of June would require a change to the rules. Fifa are in constant dialogue with unions about a possible blanket extension. It does seem that this is possible to do, but it would come with several complications and clearly the preference for everybody is to have everything wrapped up by the end of June.
Games Behind Closed Doors
The Premier League is adamant it wants to resume on April 30 unless told otherwise by the Government. It must be noted that the Premier League is also a huge tax revenue generator, so the Government might be more inclined to accept its return. However, due to the current state of things with social distancing in force, there is a general acceptance that if football does return by that April date, it will be behind closed doors.
However, it isn’t as straight forward as that. We have seen in games played behind closed doors that fans still gather in large numbers outside stadiums, thus defeating the object. Also, you have to factor in the players and staff of the clubs. Football was due to carry on as normal until news broke that Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi tested positive for Covid-19, then everything changed. What would happen if after the resumption of football, a player, manager or key member of staff contracted the virus? Does everything get cancelled again or just the match that team are involved in? This contradicts the idea of going ahead with the season to protect its integrity, as doing this would bring that into question.
Whilst there is great hope the season can be resumed by April; it is important the health and well being of everybody in the game comes first. Surely there will not be any games played if there is even a remote chance of anyone catching the virus.
Cancelling the season
There are those out there with the opinion that the season should be null and void, and we just start the 2020/21 season as scheduled in August. West Ham managing director Karren Brady was a big advocate of this but was met with a lot of criticism and derision for her opinion. Probably didn’t help her cause that West Ham are in the midst of a relegation battle either!
Despite those who disagree with Brady, it cannot be argued that cancelling the season is a viable option. Due to time constraints, if football doesn’t resume by May at the latest, it is extremely difficult to see how the season finishes without causing massive headaches to the calendar moving forward. It feels like we have been in the grip of Coronavirus for an eternity, but it was only very recently that Champions League games were being played in front of massive crowds at Anfield, then a few days later Boris Johnson ordered stricter measures leading to where we are today. So, things can change in an instant, which makes it very hard to see professional football returning any time soon.
Lots of questions, but what’s the answer?
It is so difficult trying to think of an outcome that would keep everyone happy, and to be honest, I don’t think there is one. When you weigh everything up, it seems trying to get the season finished is the most obvious and fair way to appease everyone involved in the game. That isn’t a perfect outcome, you still have the issue of players lacking match fitness, and games potentially being played behind closed doors. However, when you look at the alternatives it almost feels like the least bad option, as none are perfect. Finishing the season as it is would be ridiculous, as teams would be relegated with games in hand, or promoted with several games still to play. To me this a complete non-starter.
The other option is cancelling the season. Again, this would be a nightmare. There would be lawsuits launched, legal battles galore. Leeds for example, so long out of the Premier League, are on course to get there this season. Would it be fair to deny them a place at the top table? Again, the different factors, permutations, dates, money, contracts and everything involved with these decisions is a minefield. I don’t envy the decision makers in this instance but decide they must.
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