As Gareth Southgate put it so eloquently, this is hardly the moment for football to take centre stage. Yet after a week in which almost all of the sport’s global calendar was suspended amid the growing coronavirus pandemic, England’s manager can be forgiven for wondering if what Pelé described as the “beautiful game” will ever recover from this crisis.
Thursday’s joint announcement by the Football Association, the Premier League and the EFL that the provisional date of the first weekend in April for the resumption of men’s and women’s professional football had been pushed back almost a month until “no earlier than 30 April” confirmed the worst for many clubs and supporters in Britain.
Less than seven days after Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta was diagnosed with coronavirus, prompting the initial postponement of the Premier League programme the following morning, the entire football industry in Britain has been plunged into turmoil as staff scramble to find a way of plugging the gaps left by the loss of match-day revenue, income that becomes more critical the further you go down the pyramid.
Faced with the threat of Covid-19 sweeping across Europe, football’s authorities had little choice but to shut down all domestic competitions, although the government was initially slow to act and last weekend’s National League fixtures were somehow still allowed to take place. “The reason it went ahead is because whoever sits on the board of the National League just cared about the money. Simple as that,” said the Eastleigh manager, Ben Strevens, after his side’s 4-0 defeat at Notts County played out in front of 4,942 supporters. “They didn’t think about the wellbeing of the spectators, and it’s not only the supporters: we’ve got a kitman who is an old boy, and there’s stewards who are older. They’re the ones that are most at risk. There’s no way whatsoever these games should have been played.”
Thousands of junior matches up and down the country were also played last weekend but it was not until Monday that the FA finally acted by issuing a statement “advising that all grassroots football in England is postponed for the foreseeable future”. That was in line with the government’s recommendation for people to avoid social contact and gatherings where possible. By contrast, those measures were introduced in France and Germany on Thursday 12 March, the same day Uefa announced that the following week’s Manchester City v Real Madrid and Juventus v Lyon Champions League second legs were postponed.
When Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi was among those to test positive for Covid-19 on 13 March, Uefa swiftly confirmed that all the remaining Champions League and Europa League matches scheduled to take place this past week had been postponed.
On Tuesday the Norwegian Football Association confirmed on Twitter, after an emergency video conference involving European football’s governing body and major stakeholders, including all 55 national FAs, that Euro 2020 would have to wait until next summer. It had long been inevitable.
“We are at the helm of a sport that vast numbers of people live and breathe that has been laid low by this invisible and fast-moving opponent,” said Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin. “It is at times like these, that the football community needs to show responsibility, unity, solidarity and altruism.”
The decision to delay their quadrennial showpiece tournament – which generated almost £2bn for Uefa when it was hosted by France in 2016 – was clear recognition that there was no other option. With the finals spread across 12 cities from Dublin to Baku, it remains to be seen whether the current format can be retained in 2021 despite officials insisting not much will change. We have still yet to discover the fate of the 2021 women’s tournament that was scheduled to be held in England next summer, with the first match at Old Trafford on 7 July.
Uefa has said it will announce the new dates in due course but Ceferin hinted that the preferred option may be to hold the tournament in 2022. “Yes, that’s one of the possibilities, one of the most likely to happen,” he said. “I don’t think that we should cannibalise the women’s Euro with the men’s Euro just one month before.”
As well as the final, on 12 July, Wembley is due to host both semi-finals of the rescheduled men’s Euros next year, so there will be logistical concerns about holding another tournament in the same country so soon afterwards.
New dates must also be found for the men’s under-21s tournament due to take place in Slovenia and Hungary, plus the Nations League finals, but Uefa has at least given clubs a window in which to complete their domestic leagues and European competitions should the situation allow.
Its president even expressed hope that the new spirit of cooperation could be here to stay after praising the swiftness with which his Fifa counterpart, Gianni Infantino – usually a sworn enemy – had acted to deal with the crisis by ensuring that the whole football world acts accordingly. “There is no more time for egotistic ideas,” Ceferin said. “There is no more time for selfishness. This is a reset of world football.”
Time will tell on that front. When life does eventually return to normal, however, the challenge of finishing hundreds of league and cup programmes around the continent – not to mention the Champions League and Europa League – will be seismic.
The “commitment to complete all domestic and European club competitions by the end of the current sporting season, ie 30 June” that was signed by Uefa and most of Europe’s domestic leagues also recognised that it may mean “possible limitations or drops of current exclusive calendar slots, potentially resulting in the scheduling of domestic league matches in midweek and scheduling of Uefa club competitions matches on weekends”.
The Premier League’s announcement on Thursday followed suit, with the prospect of games being held being closed doors if necessary believed to be among the plans under consideration. Concerns over the expiration of many players’ contracts on 30 June make it highly desirable that the season be over by then, although contingency measures including clubs offering temporary extensions to out-of-contract players or those on loan deals are also understood to be under discussion.
There is one relatively isolated country in Europe, though, where football goes on oblivious to the rest of the continent’s travails. The new season in Belarus began on Thursday, despite 51 reported cases of coronavirus in the former Soviet satellite. “There is no critical situation. So we decided that we are starting the championship in a timely manner. Today,” said Vladimir Bazanov, chairman of the Football Federation of Belarus. “We have no prerequisites for this yet. We have no panic. The situation in the country is not such that we need to stop everything. Why escalate the situation?”