The Premier League has declared it will be business as usual for top-flight football this weekend – even though it increasingly appears an outlier after many of Europe’s major leagues shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The top divisions in Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland and the United States have all been suspended amid the outbreak, while the German Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 are holding matches behind closed doors.
Fixtures in the Scottish Premiership also appear set to be postponed after this Sunday’s Old Firm clash between Rangers and Celtic, following the announcement by Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, that gatherings of more than 500 people will be banned from Monday.
However, despite several players including Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy having entered self-isolation, a Premier League spokesman confirmed matches would take place as normal after sports bodies were told by the government’s medical experts on Thursday that there remains a very low probability of someone with Covid-19 infecting a large number of people in a stadium.
A Premier League statement said: “All Premier League matches will go ahead as scheduled this weekend. While the Prime Minister advised that all sporting events should take place as normal for now, he also indicated that Government is considering banning major public events, like sporting fixtures.
“We are therefore continuing to work closely with our clubs, Government, The FA, EFL and other relevant stakeholders to ensure appropriate contingency plans are in place as and when circumstances change. The welfare of players, staff and supporters is of paramount importance and we will continue to follow Public Health England guidelines thoroughly. We will keep everyone updated as appropriate.”
Games below the Premier League, in the English Championship and Leagues One and Two, will also go ahead, along with Wales’ Six Nations rugby union match against Scotland in Cardiff.
In a statement, the English Football League said the guidance from the relevant authorities remained that there is no medical rationale to close or cancel sporting events at this time. “The EFL, however, will continue to work with government and relevant stakeholders to further develop contingency plans to ensure the League is best placed to act as and when any potential restrictions may come into force,” it added.
The Premier League, Football Association and English Football League met on Thursday after Boris Johnson addressed the nation and agreed on what they called a “consistent approach” ahead of this weekend’s round of fixtures. However, the scale of the problem for global sport due to the rapid spread of the virus was once again illustrated in a fast-moving 24 hours as:
• European football’s governing body, Uefa, moved closer towards postponing the 2020 European Championship, the final of which is due to be held at Wembley, until 2021. Uefa officials will discuss the future of the tournament on Tuesday.
• Real Madrid’s Champions League match against Manchester City next Tuesday was delayed after a basketball player from the Madrid team, which shares a training facility with the football team, tested positive for the virus.
• This weekend’s Formula One season-opening grand prix in Melbourne looked set to be called off after a staff member from the McLaren team tested positive for Covid-19.
• President Trump called for the Tokyo Olympic Games in July to be postponed for a year.
• Men’s tennis was shut down for six weeks, with the prestigious Miami Open and Monte Carlo tournaments cancelled.
• The Pro14 rugby tournament for clubs from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy and South Africa was suspended until further notice.
• Irish racing was told that it must be held behind closed doors until 27 March.
• In the US, top-flight basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer were all suspended. Men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments were cancelled, including March Madness.
This summer’s European Championships was already expected to be most complicated ever staged because 12 stadiums in 12 different countries were being used, starting in Rome on 12 June and ending on 12 July with the final at Wembley.
But the spread of coronavirus has now put its future in doubt. Delay could free up space in the calendar for the European leagues to finish their seasons this summer. The Euro 2021 women’s tournament in England is not due to start until 11 July so one plan being discussed is for the men’s competition to take place beforehand.
A final decision will come when Uefa meets with representatives from the clubs, leagues and the players’ union Fifpro on Tuesday.
Insiders have also told the Guardian that “everything will be on the table” at the meeting – including drastic plans to make the rest of this season’s Champions League and Europa League ties into one-legged games staged in neutral venues.
Uefa confirmed the talks were “in the light of the ongoing developments in the spread of Covid-19 across Europe and the changing analysis of the World Health Organisation”.
The International Olympic Committee has insisted that it is still full steam ahead for the Olympics in Japan in July despite calls from Trump for a postponement until 2021. At a briefing at the White House, Trump said: “I like that better than I like having empty stadiums all over the place,” he said. “If you cancel it, do it a year later. That’s a better alternative rather than having it with no crowd.”
But the IOC said it remained “absolutely in line with our Japanese hosts” in its commitment to deliver a safe Olympic Games this year. “The world is facing challenges which are also impacting sport,” it said. “But with 19 weeks before the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the many measures being taken now by authorities all around the world give us confidence and keep us fully committed to delivering Olympic Games which can bring the world together in peace.”
In the cricket, England’s tour of Sri Lanka was continuing. But a spokesperson for the England and Wales cricket board said “this is a highly evolving situation and circumstances are changing rapidly, sometimes several times a day”.