The spread of coronavirus means it is likely Premier League matches will be played behind closed doors this month, a leading club executive has admitted.
Sasha Ryazantsev, Everton’s chief financial officer, said banning fans from matches in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus would be a decision “forced” on clubs. However with Italian authorities having taken the decision to play Serie A fixtures behind closed doors until April, the possibility of something similar in England is increasing.
“It would be a forced decision rather than one we would proactively engage in,” said Ryazantsev, who was speaking at the FT Business of Football Summit in London. “But the whole situation goes far beyond the world of sport. Of course nobody wants to play behind closed doors and I don’t think it’s inevitable at the moment that it will happen. But we feel it is quite likely it may happen in the coming weeks.”
The Premier League wrote to its member clubs this week asking them to prepare contingency plans for the virus, as the official government response moved from one of containment to trying to slow the spread of the disease. In the letter, the league suggested that an outbreak of coronavirus at just one club would make it difficult to complete the season.
While the Premier League’s official position remains “business as usual”, events are moving fast. In one example of changing behaviour, Gary Neville withdrew from a keynote speaking role at the Business of Football Summit, in compliance with a new policy from Sky Sports on coronavirus.
Stephen Zhang, the president of Internazionale, did speak at the event. He has been outspoken on the Italian response to coronavirus, calling the president of Serie A a “clown” for postponing Inter’s match against Juventus last weekend with less than 24 hours’ notice.
Zhang said he did not regret his choice of language. “A lot of people think my words are strong but when protecting people and safety words are never too strong,” he said. “We always have to deliver a positive message and take responsibility for the public. From a moral standpoint I thought [the Serie A approach] was completely wrong. We believe that safety and security of public health is the most important thing. Nothing can be compromised on this topic.”