Soccer, sports and much of day-to-day life across the globe is suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak, and there are plenty of questions and issues raised by the shutdown. Gab Marcotti will catch you up on all the talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Expect “least bad” plan from UEFA summit
Don’t expect Tuesday’s UEFA summit with stakeholders to come up with a good solution that solves the fixture chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The best we can hope for is a “least bad” plan that allows European tournaments and domestic leagues, virtually all of which have been suspended, to come to some kind of generally accepted conclusion. If the epidemic allows us, that is.
Right now, we don’t have a definitive “back-to-normal” date. It could be in a month’s time, it could be June, it could be beyond that. So whatever path officials take — and it’s more likely to be a path, rather than an immediate, definitive decision — will be contingent on the epidemic becoming manageable, at least to the point where we can play with some reasonable sense of safety behind closed doors.
UEFA will be under a ton of pressure to move Euro 2020, which is currently scheduled to kick off on June 12. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single stakeholder who wouldn’t want them to do it. Clubs and leagues want time to finish their seasons, whether by playing out the remaining fixtures (that means anywhere from 9 to 13 games in the “Big Five” European leagues) or by figuring out some kind of playoff/reduced schedule. If they have to do it by the end of May, there is virtually no shot they’ll get the all-clear and be able to. If they have until the end of June, they think there’s a fighting chance.
At this stage, it’s also in UEFA’s interest to move the Euros. The round of 16 in both Europa League and Champions League hasn’t been completed yet and there are three rounds to go after that, including the final.
Could the 2019-20 season go beyond June? Extended further, say, into July, August or even September? Theoretically, yes, but it opens another gigantic can of worms. For a start, any player whose contract ends at the end of this season will become a free agent on June 30. That’s when player contracts typically end each year and, crucially, insurance and sponsorship deals, too.
Can it be addressed? Sure. But that’s a lot of work for lawyers and agents to get through. Furthermore, assuming the all-clear comes at different times in different countries, you would end up with a mess heading into next season’s European competition — whose qualifying rounds, by the way, start June 23. In other words, you either cut this season short or abbreviate next season, or you just carry things forward for years. There is no escaping this.
So you move Euro 2020 (we’ll get to that in the next segment) and, obviously, the Champions League final too, because there is no way things will get done by May 30. But the problem of fixture pileup remains. If, say, Manchester City reach the final of the Champions League and FA Cup, they would somehow need to play 21 games between May 1 (assuming the go-ahead comes that early, which would be a real best-case scenario) and June 30. That would be absolutely brutal on the players.
All of which means there has to be give and take from all sides. The Champions League would need to be whittled down, perhaps to single-legged encounters on neutral ground followed by, as some have suggested, a “Final Four” at the site of the Champions League final. That gets rid of two games; then, the FA and Premier League would need to do the rest, either by scrapping the FA Cup or, instead of playing out the entire remaining fixtures, come up with some sort of playoff system where the table is split into mini-leagues and some proportion of current points totals are carried over.
How could that work? The Belgian league might provide a blueprint. Some teams go into a “mini-league” to determine the champion and most of the European places. Others might enter a mini-league with the final European place at stake, the others to decide relegation. You get to keep half the points you earned in the regular season, and you go from there. It’s not perfect — far from it — and you’d need a room full of eggheads to figure out how to do it as fairly as possible.
But it’s a whole heck of a lot better than the alternatives, which are declaring the season over, anointing the table following the last completed round of games as final and not playing at all. Or declaring the season null and void, not assigning a title and not having relegation. (Which would also mean no promotion, of course, unless you promoted the top second-tier sides anyway and expanded the top-flight, which would be another bad idea.) It’s a similar story for other leagues.
How domestic leagues resolve themselves — if they have the time to do it — is a matter for each individual country. All UEFA can do is offer a time frame that might make it possible, while also enabling the Champions League to finish. Provided, of course, the epidemic allows it.
Can FIFA, UEFA figure out how to make conflicts work?
Steve Nicol thinks domestic leagues finishing out their seasons is the only fair way to decide titles.
So if you don’t play Euro 2020 in June, what do you do?
Cancelling it, as some have suggested, seems far-fetched. UEFA project revenues of some 2 billion Euros ($2.2 billion) for the tournament, and canceling a tournament like that isn’t just a shortfall in revenue; there are plenty of sunk costs you won’t get back. It’s also worth noting here that when we talk about UEFA “making money,” the vast majority of it flows back to the member federations, both those participating in the tournament (as prize money) and those who don’t qualify (in the form of solidarity payments).
The obvious solution, and the one mooted by many, is playing it in the summer of 2021. Again, we’re talking in terms of “least bad” options here, because there are already events scheduled in that time frame. There’s the Final Four of the UEFA Nations League, there are World Cup qualifiers and there’s FIFA’s inaugural expanded 24-team Club World Cup to take place in China, with eight European teams in it. There’s also the women’s European championships, which would overlap by a week if we take the men’s Euro 2020 dates and applied them to next summer.
You could move the women’s Euros to the summer of 2022 and it might actually make more sense, given there will be no major international men’s competition at that time, since Qatar 2022 will be a winter World Cup. That presents logistical issues, but at the same time might make the competition more lucrative financially and help it in terms of media attention, certainly more so than having its build-up and group-stage games clash with the men’s Euros.
Rearranging the World Cup qualifiers and the Nations League Final Four is difficult, but doable. The Club World Cup, on the other hand, will require serious negotiation with FIFA. On the surface, it’s a new tournament with no history and so it’s easy to simply not play it. Then again, it has been a central plank for FIFA and President Gianni Infantino, who sees it as a key vehicle in growing the game (and growing revenue) worldwide. It has also put FIFA on a collision course with UEFA because, obviously, the main revenue drivers here would be the eight European teams.
This is where you need to appeal to the common sense of Infantino and his counterpart, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, and hope they put their personal differences aside. But, also, you need to appeal to the big European clubs. The qualifying criteria hasn’t been fully confirmed yet, but the principle is that they will be chosen based on results over previous years. You can expect Real Madrid and Liverpool to be part of the mix as Champions League winners, plus the usual suspects among the superclubs. They’re the ones who move the needle here, because the presence of their players at the Euros makes that tournament more valuable, and the presence of their brands at the Club World Cup makes that tournament more valuable too. If push comes to shove, you hope they’ll put personal profit/advantage aside and help force through a compromise.
There are two other potential time slots likely to come up. One would be playing it to coincide with the Africa Cup of Nations, which runs from Jan. 9 to Feb. 6, 2021. A number of domestic leagues will be on winter break for all or part of it anyway and, obviously, with so many African players gone, it would minimize the disruption. If you go down that route, you’d likely need to replace a couple of venues: the average high in Saint Petersburg in January is well below freezing.
Another would be to simply replace the Nations League and play the Euros throughout the season. There is room to play six internationals in the three international breaks set aside for the Nations League in September, October and November of 2020: you could use them for a warm-up friendly, the group games and the first two knockout stages. And, of course, you could take over the Nations League Finals slot in June 2021 for the semifinal and finals.
Sure, it would mean scrapping the Nations League, but maybe you could run a reduced version with the 31 nations who didn’t qualify for the Euros. And perhaps you could augment it with the teams eliminated from the group stage in November. This would cause the least disruption to domestic football and avoid conflicts with FIFA and the women’s Euros.
It would mean UEFA cannibalising one of its own competitions and generating less revenue, which in turn means less money going back to the FAs. But something has to give somewhere.
No “one size fits all” policy for finishing domestic seasons
What about the elephant in the room? The possibility (which can’t be discounted) that we can’t play at all before June 30, not even in some reduced playoff format?
UEFA, you assume, would have no choice but to void their Europa League and Champions League season while figuring out comparatively trivial stuff like coefficients and the like. Meanwhile, domestic leagues would have to make tough choices.
Many see a binary choice between using the most recent league standings as the final table or voiding the season entirely (and therefore having no promotion and relegation), but it doesn’t need to be that way. The thing to remember is that precedent doesn’t really matter, and that both leagues and federations can do what they think is best for them.
In some cases, it might be to award championships (Liverpool being the obvious example); in others, it might be to void the campaign. In others still, you lock people in a room and find a formula that works. If it means that somebody gets relegated, you trust in their good sense and you negotiate financial compensation. If it means having no relegation and still promoting teams, going with a bigger league for a season or two, you do that. Whatever the “least bad” solution is. And if you insist on continuing to play and redrawing your own calendar, that’s fine too. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all policy.
The one thing UEFA should insist on — because these are UEFA competitions — is that leagues submit their participants for the Europa League and Champions League by a certain cut-off date. Beyond that, it’s a matter for domestic football.
Rooney speaks out for the players
Ale Moreno reacts to Wayne Rooney’s comments on Euro 2020 in light of English football being suspended.
Wayne Rooney wrote a scathing editorial in the Sunday Times asking why it took so long for the Premier League and English Football League to shut down operations.
“Why did we wait until Friday? Why did it take [Arsenal manager] Mikel Arteta to get ill for the game in England to do the right thing?” Rooney wrote, adding that it felt like players were being treated like “guinea pigs.” He said that if he infected his family through playing when it was not safe and they got ill, he “would never forgive the authorities.”
His reaction is more than understandable, and it serves as a reminder of how globalized the Premier League is. Rooney has played abroad; more than half the players, owners and coaches are from somewhere other than England. They see what’s happening elsewhere and they wonder why Britain is acting differently. The answer, of course, is that football authorities followed government advice. They’re not experts in public health (you wouldn’t expect them to be) and let’s face it: it’s also a way to cover your backside.
The British government has chosen a course of action that is markedly different from the vast majority of other developed countries (in Europe, Asia and North America) and, naturally, folks will wonder “why.” This has nothing to do with which approach is correct — I certainly am not qualified to opine — but it has all to do with seeing the actions taken to protect your peers elsewhere.
The Premier League in particular may be an English legal entity, but it exists in a global ecosystem. And so too do its constituent parts. Image matters here, and how its most valuable resources — the players — feel about the steps taken to protect them is not something to be taken lightly.