Fans across the United Kingdom and much of the rest of the world experienced the eerie sensation of a Saturday without sport. With professional football called off across the country, Six Nations and Premiership rugby union suspended, England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka abandoned and this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne also called off, it was left to horse racing, non-league football and an Olympic boxing qualifier to fill the British calendar.
But while supporters sought to entertain themselves in new ways, debate continued inside sport as to what direction to take in the face of a pandemic that could yet last for months. First and foremost on the list of concerns is the Olympic Games. With football’s Euro 2020 expected to be postponed for a year at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, the biggest event of all is the last one standing.
This past week the Olympic torch relay was aborted in Greece and the US president, Donald Trump, said the Games – due to take place in Tokyo in July – should be moved back a year. But on Saturday the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, stepped in to insist the event was still on track. “We will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned,” Abe said, adding that the topic of postponement was “not a subject at all” during a recent call with Trump.
Abe also said Japan was working closely with the International Olympic Committee, which will have the final say on whether the Games go ahead, and the World Health Organization, suggesting he accepted that the ultimate decision did not rest with Tokyo. The Japanese leg of the torch relay is due to begin on 26 March.
After the Premier League and EFL together decided on Friday to suspend play until at least the first weekend in April, in football the discussion has since moved on to the possibility of the league season being cancelled altogether. It is understood the Premier League is considering a number of options ahead of an emergency meeting next Thursday. These range from trying to complete the season behind closed doors in a “sanitised” environment to declaring this season void and promoting the top two teams from the Championship, Leeds and West Brom, to play in an expanded 22-team competition next season.
One club executive, West Ham’s Karren Brady, used her column in Saturday’s Sun to call for the season to be voided if it cannot quickly be resumed. Brady wrote: “The Premier League hopes that an interlude of three weeks from now will enable it to restart but that may well be dreamland. Perhaps scrubbing Euro 2020 could provide more time to complete the season into the summer but that is also a giant ‘if’. What if the league cannot be finished?
“As games in both the Premier League and in the EFL are affected, the only fair and reasonable thing to do is declare the whole season null and void. Who knows who would have gone down or come up if the games have not actually been played in full?”
Voiding the league season would carry substantial financial implications and, while most Premier League clubs would be able to take the hit, that is not the case for clubs lower down the pyramid who are much more reliant on gate receipts to keep running.
Steve Thompson, managing director of Dagenham and Redbridge who play in the National League, said the outlook was bleak for smaller clubs. “Potentially some are not going to survive this,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a large social facility with two function rooms, and lots of clubs in non‑league and Leagues One and Two rely on that income.”
For supporters, meanwhile, there was the relatively less stressful challenge of trying to fill their empty time. Many fans sought out their nearest amateur match, while others spent more time on social media, sharing old moments or imagining new ones. Southampton came up with one alternative to playing their Premier League match against Norwich: challenging the Canaries to a game of noughts and crosses on Twitter.
Norwich failed to take up the offer – perhaps being away from their phone during what would have been half-time had the match been played – and so Manchester City stepped in. The game was played to a scoring draw.