Due to Covid-19, a lot of the world has come to a halt right now. That’s also true of world football, with only the Belarussian, Burundian and Nicaraguan Leagues bucking the trend worldwide and keeping on going, at least for now.
After several European countries postponed their leagues, British football is on pause for now. The Premier League, Football League and FA Cup have been postponed until April 30th at the earliest. Scottish football is postponed until the same date.
UEFA have suspended the Champions League and Europa League indefinitely, and have confirmed that EURO2020, will take place in 2021 (but because they’ve already ordered the merch for the sake of continuity, may still be called EURO2020!). All international football has currently been stopped, with the Nations League playoffs that were due to be played last week, and will see teams get a place at EURO 2020, have been postponed and will be rearranged.
At the time, some people saw the decision to halt football altogether as excessive. I doubt there’s many who don’t agree now that it was absolutely the right thing to do. Here in the UK, the government and most of the population took an incredibly blasé attitude (I’m ashamed to say I was one of them) to the pandemic at first, meaning that football carried on as normal, even as it was being moved behind doors in other countries and that led to players and fans being put at risk unnecessarily.
For example, on March 10, Madrid’s had seen schools, universities and museums were all closed to contain the spread, yet the next day later 3000 Atletico Madrid fans were allowed to come to my home city of Liverpool and put themselves, Liverpool fans and the people of Liverpool at risk; a decision that was questioned at the time and only looks more foolish with hindsight as we are now all too aware of the importance of social distancing in stopping the spread of the virus.
Against the backdrop of a disease that’s already killed thousands, and will likely kill thousands more before it’s done, it feels weird to be thinking about football. But, as much as we have to be aware of what’s going on in the world now and take responsible action; we will get through this, so it’s good to think about getting back to the things that we enjoy.
For British football the biggest question is what do they do next. Do they restart the season, end it as it is now or void it altogether?
There is no easy answer here. All ways have their advantages and disadvantages and are popular depending on which team you support, or don’t like. There probably isn’t even a right answer.
As it stands, restarting the season seems to be the aim of the Premier League. They are currently exploring ways they may be able to get that done. Reports are that they are looking to restart the season in July, with the players quarantined in hotels and games being played behind closed doors and they could finish the season within six weeks, which would allow for the 2020/21 to start a month later.
While we don’t know if that scenario will come to pass, it at least seems possible. While hopefully by then the worst of the virus will be behind us; it’s likely that a partial lockdown and social distancing will be with us for a lot longer and it would still probably be too dangerous to allow fans into stadiums. Players, referees, TV crews and staff could all be tested for the virus beforehand. To minimise the amount of people needed, it could be possible to have two or three games back to back at the same venue. The absence of a crowd and the quarantining of players means that there is no home advantage for anyone, so it shouldn’t be a massive problem to play at a neutral venue.
The sticking point there could be that it would be needed to have paramedics and medical staff at the games, as per the rules. At present every single ambulance and paramedic is needed to deal with far more important things than football, and if that’s still the case in July then football can’t go ahead.
Completing the season would also allow the benefits of keeping the integrity of the competition. If the season was ended now, with every team keeping its current place, it would cause all kinds of problems.
Currently, Liverpool lead the Premier League by 25 points. They have been the best and most consistent team in England by far and would be worthy champions. They were due to play second-placed Manchester City in April and a win would have secured them the title. They are currently on 82 points, which has been enough to win the Premier League on several occasions, and is more than Leicester City managed in their 2015/16 title win.
But even so, not having won it by virtue of completing the full schedule would take a lot of the shine off it. Nobody wants to win that way.
Those problems only magnify as you go down the league. How can you relegate a team now? Who’s to say they wouldn’t have put together a late run that kept them up? What about Champions League qualification? The finances alone for those scenarios mean that lawsuits would be inevitable.
The FA ended all football in England at the 7th tier and below a couple of weeks ago. South Shields, who were 12 points clear at the top of the BetVictor Premier League, and looking to get into the National League North, have said they’ll sue after the league was voided.
The biggest argument in favour of just voiding the season altogether is that hopefully by the time the next season is due to begin, things will be starting to get back to normal, so everyone can just rest up and start afresh.
But, that argument makes the massive assumption that the 20/21 season will be uninterrupted too. While the hopes of a lot of people are that the viral levels will reduce when the weather gets warmer, we’ve no idea if that’s true or if it will come back again next winter. We could cancel a season in progress now to start the next one afresh, only to cancel that too.
There’s an existential problem with voiding the league. Games have been played, players have scored, assisted, been injured and been sent off. Coaches have been hired and fired. Voiding the season means we have to pretend none of this happened.
Voiding the season now also poses some thorny problems as it’s effectively saying those games did not exist. That means then that any team or player records would have to be erased. Do players have to pay back any bonuses they got for games that now are void? Does the league have to pay back TV money?
If it was my choice, I would finish the current season off. The Premier League has waived its own rule about the latest date the season can finish, so it doesn’t really matter when. If it can’t happen in June or July, then let’s just do it in August or September. If we can’t do it then, let’s do it later. Do it next year if we have to.
Then I would have it so next season, instead of playing every team in the league twice, instead you would play them once, then you would split the league in two, with the ten teams in the top playing each other once to decide the champion and European places, and the ten teams at the bottom playing each other to see who gets relegated.
That’s a 28 game season, long enough to get a true picture of which teams deserve to be in contention for the league and which ones deserve to be fighting for relegation, but also short enough to fit into a truncated schedule.
If there’s no time for that, then we can always get creative and come up with a new format or keep the current format but do it at a different time.
Similarly, European football could resume later this year, this seasons competitions could be started and could be played as a knockout, like they used to be, rather than having group stages. Next year is the 65th anniversary of the European Cup, so it could be dressed up as a special anniversary edition.
The point is, there is the time and the freedom to be flexible and finish the season, keep the integrity of the competitions and then move on. Hopefully by then, this horrible virus will be nothing but a bad memory, which can be washed away by football.