Commentary: To play or not to play. EPL forced to tackle COVID-19
While playing behind closed doors had been likely, a series of infections in the EPL could see postponement of games as an emergency measure, says John Duerden.
SINGAPORE: By Friday (Mar 13) morning, English football had confirmed that one of its players and a manager were infected with COVID-19.
After Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tested positive on Mar 12, the next morning it was revealed that Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi was also infected. The same morning, some reports had also emerged that Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was also infected though, at the time of writing, this had not been confirmed by the club yet.
The COVID-19 outbreak had already brought much of Asian football to a halt and by this week, European authorities were also scrambling to find a way to deal with what is an unprecedented situation in the modern game. That is, however, easier said than done.
In China, South Korea and Japan, all games in domestic leagues, continental club competitions and the 2022 World Cup qualifiers have been postponed.
Until now, European football authorities have been dealing with this in various ways. Italy, which is currently experiencing the most cases in the continent, has suspended its football leagues until April. In Spain and Germany games are being played behind closed doors.
EPL FORCED TO REACT
The English Premier League (EPL) was, however, trying to continue as normal despite COVID-19 cases continuing to grow in the UK - Mar 11 saw the number of confirmed cases reach 460, the biggest rise to date as it surged 83 more than the day before.
The United Kingdom (UK) government did not yet consider football to be a major public health threat. Patrick Vallance, Britain's chief scientific adviser, said on Mar 9 that:
One person in a 70,000-seater stadium is not going to infect the stadium. They will infect potentially a few people they have got very close contact with.
This official position enabled football to keep going although some reactionary measures were taken. Manchester City’s meeting with Arsenal due to take place on Mar 11 was the first English Premier League fixture to be postponed. This was because the Arsenal players and staff had been in contact with Evangelos Marinakis on Feb 27. The owner of Greek club Olympiakos had celebrated on the pitch with his players after a famous win at Arsenal and on Mar 10 announced he had been infected with the virus. The London club was however still scheduled to face Brighton on Mar 14, at a sold-out stadium.
However, by Friday that was all about to change. Arteta’s infection forced the EPL to cancel Arsenal’s game at Brighton. As Chelsea took the measures to quarantine its players too after Hudson-Odoi tested positive, the Premier League authorities have called for an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the next steps. It is widely expected that they will suspend the league and postpone all matches.
PLAYING BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Up until this point, there were two different options available though neither was perfect. The first was to play games in empty stadiums and the second was to suspend all football until the coronavirus situation calms down.
Pep Guardiola, manager of current English champions Manchester City is not a fan of playing games with no fans present, likening it to actors in a theatre performing with no audience.
The Spaniard predicted that the situation will become more serious in England and asked:
Is it worse to play football without the spectators? We do our job for the people and if the people cannot come to watch us, there is no sense.
On Thursday (Mar 12), just hours after the World Health Organization called the outbreak a global pandemic, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said that his club would back the suspension of the EPL rather than play behind closed doors. “I think football is for fans. Without fans we are nothing anyway,” he told media.
For both Manchester clubs, suspending the league could also mean that their fierce rivals Liverpool miss winning their 19th league title, though the authorities have not clarified what would happen in that regard.
But it is not just about the football experience. The EPL is the richest in the world with its 20 clubs receiving S$4.2 billion in broadcast revenue for last season. Top tier teams may not be reliant on match day income but there are plenty further down England’s football pyramid that can’t afford to miss out on vital income.
Former Manchester United star Gary Neville is a co-owner of fourth tier team Salford. “I do not support matches played behind closed doors,” Neville wrote on social media.
If it’s necessary to shut down stadiums the associations must find a way of delaying the season and playing the games when it is safe to do so to protect the revenues for clubs that require this income to survive.
Despite the resistance from some quarters to this measure though, a leaked memo from the Premier League revealed that the game’s authorities had preferred this option to prevent the spread of the virus. With the virus already now making its way into the EPL, that option may no longer be viable as Friday’s meeting will reveal.
SUSPENSION IS TRICKY
However, suspending the season is controversial also. Most Asian leagues that have been postponed were just starting or about to start which gives authorities more breathing space to reschedule. In contrast, European leagues and competitions are three-quarters finished. The start of the next season is closer than the start of the current campaign.
Fans, especially of clubs such as Liverpool, eager to win a EPL title for the first time in 30 years, and Leeds, close to promotion back to the Premier League for the first time since 2004, are concerned that suspension could eventually lead to cancellation.
“The odds of the Premier League season being prematurely curtailed must surely be narrowing,” Simon Chadwick, Professor of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School in Paris, had earlier said.
It's too early to see this as the likely outcome, but one suspects that football will sooner or later have to confront the prospect. The sports calendar is already very packed, hence the opportunities for rescheduling are minimal. Indeed, the deeper we get into March and April, the more likely it is that curtailment will happen.
If English football does not finish the season, chaos would likely ensue.
“There would be both competition and legal ramifications,” added Chadwick.
How can a decision be made? Who would win the league? Who may or may not get relegated and promoted? This would cause major legal issues, which explains why the Premier League will try to leave any such decisions as late as possible.
An added complication is that Europe’s summer is already full due to the European Championships. Held every four years, Europe’s biggest sporting event is due to take place from June 12 to July 12, in 12 different countries.
It may be that the 24-team tournament will have to be postponed. UEFA, the organisers, are insisting however that this will not happen. On Mar 10, the Associated Press reported that UEFA was asking governments across Europe to ensure that the tournament would go ahead as scheduled and with fans.
It looks like something will have to give. Playing behind closed doors may have been a viable long-term solution before the infections set in. But suspension may be the only option now, even if it only is able to work if the summer is kept free for clubs to play the rescheduled domestic fixtures, and not withstanding other ramifications.
As the virus spreads in the EPL, football bosses in England are rushing to make some difficult decisions.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).