Football, like most sports across the globe has been severely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. But being the most popular sport in the world, the financial, legal and emotional implications of the disruption are likely to be massive.
The authorities running the sport have suspended all active competitions across Europe, now the epicentre of the pandemic, while the future tournaments have been postponed.
The five biggest leagues in European football – Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 – have the fates of their respective 2019-20 campaigns on the line with the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of relenting in the continent.
Italy and Spain are worst hit by the virus with Germany, France, Netherlands and the UK not far behind. As things stand, here is the status of the respective domestic leagues in these countries.
Football leagues across Europe
|Domestic Competitions||Country||Current status|
|Premier League||England||Suspended till April 30|
|La Liga||Spain||Suspended indefinitely|
|Serie A||Italy||Suspended indefinitely|
|Bundesliga||Germany||Suspended till April 30|
|Ligue 1||France||Suspended till April 15|
No uniform solution
While Uefa have postponed the Champions League and Europa League campaigns, there can’t be a uniform solution for the other domestic leagues across Europe. Every league is organised and managed by a separate body along with the respective national federations.
Every league thus has its own sponsor, broadcaster, revenue models and an agreement with its clubs. So, a continent-wide uniform solution to determine the outcome of the 2019-20 league campaigns is out of question.
Financial and legal problems
The idea of voiding the ongoing league season has been put forward by former players and officials alike in all these major European football countries, but that outcome is likely to leave the league organisers and national federations with plenty of legal challenges and in turn, additional costs.
For instance, the Premier League clubs may have to pay back £762million to the broadcasters if the season is cancelled as they are bound by a contract to play all the matches in the season. There are similar repercussions expected in other leagues as well.
A situation where clubs incur heavy losses could potentially trigger internal conflicts pushing the football authorities into legal battles.
The footballing debate
Apart from the financial and legal challenges, there are footballing problems as well which could also drag the matter to the courts. Simply drawing curtains over a football season that has run more than two-thirds of its durations also comes with its set of issues.
Liverpool who hold a 25-point advantage over second-placed Manchester City in the Premier League will be the biggest losers if the season is voided. So would Paris-Saint Germain in France’s Ligue 1 who enjoy a 12-point cushion at the top.
Lazio, the surprise package in the Serie A title race would also be willing to complete the season considering they may never have a better shot at the Scudetto. Similar is the case of Leicester City who have a very strong chance of landing a Champions League berth for next season.
At the other end of the table, if the leagues are cancelled, it would be very difficult to enforce relegation, thus making the teams likely to gain promotion unhappy as they would be robbed off not just a financial boost but also global coverage. Similar would be the plight of teams currently occupying European spots for next season and the teams hanging on to their coattails.
Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville came out in support of the season being continued and felt it was only fair to start a new campaign when the ongoing one is concluded.
“My instinct is to try and complete the season because I think that there are obviously things at stake for all teams,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
“I’m fully aware of that (Liverpool winning the league), but I’m trying to keep away from the rivalry things at the moment. I always look at it as if my team were at the top then I’d want it to resume, so if Liverpool are at the top at this moment in time in such an emphatic position then I think it should resume as well,” he added.
In France, the suggestion by Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas to annul the season was termed as “ridiculous, stupid, clumsy and inappropriate” by the French football president Noel le Graet.
Aulas had suggested that there should be no champion in Ligue 1 this year and also no team should be relegated or promoted. However, he wanted the European spots to go to those teams who finished in the required places in the previous campaign.
With his suggestion benefiting Lyon who currently sit out of the Champions League places in Ligue 1, it came under heavy criticism.
If not void, then play?
Despite a general agreement that finishing the ongoing campaign is the best way ahead for footballing and non-footballing reasons, the severity of the pandemic has cast doubts over that possibility.
The concerns, however, were eased to an extent when Uefa decided to postpone Euro 2020 by a year to allow the domestic league seasons to complete. Conmebol also pushed the Copa America to 2021. However, with both the competitions set for next year, Uefa also recommended that the domestic leagues be wrapped up by June 30.
Certain leagues including the La Liga and Serie A were expected to return in early May but that possibility now seems unlikely with the two nations still struggling to contain the coronavirus.
“The forecasts that made us think we could resume sports competitions in late April or early May I think are a bit too optimistic,” Italy’s sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora told Italian television station Rai 3.
“To date, it is unthinkable to say that in May it is possible to resume all competitions regularly, especially with spectators. Even scientists have no certainty about the evolution of the epidemic. We have to adapt our decisions to changing situations,” he added.
The situation is slightly better in other European countries at this point but not good enough to forecast football’s possible return. Many believe that the pandemic in Europe will peak in late May, thus not allowing football to be played for some time beyond that period.
The challenge that teams will face if the season resumes in June and runs into July, August or beyond is the contract situations of the players. Usually, contracts of players playing in Europe expire in June, but with the season stretching beyond that point, teams may lose their key players and thus the playing field will be unfairly affected.
However, Fifa are working towards a potential solution to this problem with the world body likely to allow the extension of contracts of players, managers and staff till the end of the delayed campaigns. Fifa is also looking at re-adjusting the dates of the transfer window according to the dates of the new season.
Morally wrong to play football?
But, with coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc in Europe, most club officials in the Premier League feel in the current circumstances, it’s not morally right to speak about playing football.
“We look like petulant, ridiculous children now. I passionately believe what we’re doing is wrong. And I would like to think my colleagues now believe that as well, that the world has changed. It’s a scary place at the moment and we’ve got to treat it seriously,” one Premier League club’s official was quoted as saying by The Athletic.
“The position we’re taking is ridiculous. There are such bigger issues to deal with yet every question is, ‘Will Liverpool be champions?’,” an official from another club added.
West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady had already called for the Premier League season to be declared null and void, and with the FA agreeing to cancel the majority of the non-league season, more people now seem to be in favour of starting afresh in August instead of stretching the ongoing campaign.
Several teams are said to be of the opinion that the proposed April 30 return date should not be viewed as a chance to play, but to rather buy time for the authorities to negotiate with broadcasters over the size of any rebate.
As time passes and the number of Covid-19 cases in Europe escalate, the fate of the 2019-20 football season continues to divide opinions. When and if it’s played or voided, the outcome is unlikely to make everyone happy. Increasingly, finding a fair conclusion to the season is becoming a lost cause. But as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.