SINGAPORE: On May 18, a day after the 2019 to 2020 English Premier League (EPL) season was originally scheduled to finish, clubs decided to return to training in an attempt to restart the coronavirus-ravaged campaign in June and finish all outstanding 92 games by the end of July.
The announcement came just minutes after the Scottish Premier League - just north of the border - decided to abandon its season.
With the COVID-19 playing havoc with sporting competitions, time will tell which of these options is best.
There is no doubt that the EPL commencing phase one of “Project Restart” - its road map to a full return - is the easy part. This involves limited training from May 19, provided that all who are involved test negative for the coronavirus, with contact not yet permitted.
It is the beginning of a long and tricky journey for the EPL, the most watched football league in the world. Starting limited training is one thing, playing full games is another.
“Phase one is social distancing, individual training with a coach. That’s no problem, that’s like going to the park,” Watford’s captain, Troy Deeney, told British media.
“Phase two will be next week: Six days’ worth of training, three to six people training together with contact, and then six days after that you’re going into 11 versus 11 and you can’t social distance with 11 versus 11.”
The United Kingdom (UK) has been hard-hit by the coronavirus with over 34,000 official deaths, though some estimates put that figure closer to 60,000. England is still in lockdown with non-essential shops and schools currently closed.
On May 14 however, the British government opened the door for the EPL to restart in June.
"It is now up to the football authorities to agree and finalise the detail of their plans, and there is combined goodwill to achieve this for their fans, the football community and the nation as a whole,” said the government’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden following a meeting with football authorities.
INCENTIVES FOR THE EPL RETURNING
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the return of sport would give the nation a “much-needed morale boost.”
There are more concrete reasons for the Premier League to return and finish the season. Reports suggest that a failure to do so will amount to the league having to refund broadcasters around £340 million (S$593 million).
European governing body UEFA has given leagues until May 25 to present a roadmap to restart.
If that deadline is missed, though reports in England suggest that it could be extended if necessary, English clubs may be unable to participate in the lucrative and prestigious UEFA Champions League and Europa League competitions next season.
“The reality is that people have managed without football for more than a month now and there’s a real danger that unless the momentum can be regained and fans can begin to watch matches on TV again, the impetus will be lost and the draw of football will be diminished in the long-term,” Football finance expert Gerald Krasner and former chairman of Leeds United said earlier in May.
“If that was to happen, the television money would soon desert the game, too.”
Yet high-profile players have voiced concerns about returning to action when people are still dying from the virus in significant numbers.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose made his feelings clear on May 12 on a British talk show. "Football shouldn't even be spoken about until the numbers have dropped massively," said the England player. "People's lives are at risk."
READ: Commentary: From ‘stay home' to 'stay alert' – confusion in Britain as COVID-19 lockdown eases
Deeney believes that the majority of players are not just worried about playing competitive games but are even concerned about moving from phase one to phase two of training.
There are other issues too, such as those raised by Norwich City captain Grant Hanley. “How do we travel to games? Where do we stay? What are the hotels? How can we guarantee hotels are going to be safe for us to be in? Ultimately it’s putting your family at risk that is the main concern and that’s the worry I think all the teams will have at this minute.”
On Monday (May 18), the EPL said in a statement that it would follow medical advice every step of the way. “Strict medical protocols of the highest standard will ensure everyone returns to training in the safest environment possible,” the statement read.
“The health and well-being of all participants is the Premier League’s priority, and the safe return to training is a step-by-step process.”
While other European leagues such as France and the Netherlands have cancelled their seasons, Spanish teams are back in training and there was more encouragement for the EPL as the Bundesliga restarted its season on Saturday (May 16).
The games in Germany, played behind closed doors as is likely to be the case for any football league wanting to play for some time to come, went off without a hitch.
There were “social distancing” goal celebrations, substitutes wearing masks and sat apart with no handshakes.
If there is no resulting spike in cases then that will be enough reason for the EPL to be optimistic too though the number of deaths in Germany, at around 8,000, is significantly less than in the UK.
Around 1.4 million people in the UK watched German club Borussia Dortmund defeat Schalke 4-0, a figure that is five times higher than the previously most-watched Bundesliga game this season.
Such figures will give the EPL more incentive to return in June but there is still much to do before the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal take the pitch once more.
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).