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Europe gets ready for a return to football

The big European leagues are cautiously planning a return to live games as they try to finish the 2019-20 season

Players of FC Hamburg train ahead of the resumption of the Bundesliga.
Players of FC Hamburg train ahead of the resumption of the Bundesliga. (Photo: Getty Images)

For football fans, the pandemic has been a special kind of, if privileged, hell. For millions of people around the world, a weekend full of football games provides a sort of anchor, something to structure the rest of the week around. The onset of the pandemic, and the suspension of all sporting events since March, has resulted in a unique void. Forced to stay home with altered work patterns, fans have been getting by on a lot of the free content that individual clubs and football federations have been putting out, including entire classic matches, and even entire tournaments.

However, since the fate of almost all the top European football leagues is hanging in the balance—champions undecided, European cup qualifications undecided, relegation and promotion spots undecided—national football federations are slowly coming up with different ways to resume the leagues and finish the 2019-20 season as the rate of infections in European countries stabilizes and dips.

Clubs and players have a tough choice. Not completing seasons would mean massive financial losses—so much so that smaller clubs might actually cease to exist—but resuming games even in highly controlled environments poses a significant health risk to players and club employees alike.

The French Ligue 1 controversially terminated the season on 30 April, crowning Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) champions and deciding relegations and promotions on the basis of form of clubs. This led to protests from clubs and players, with at least one club, Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon), threatening legal action.

The Dutch Eredivisie, on the other hand, declared the season void on 25 April, which means no champions, no promotions and no relegations. Both the leagues acted in line with government advice and regulations. So will the others.

Of the big four leagues—the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, the Spanish La Liga, and the Italian Serie A—it’s the Bundesliga that will resume the soonest, on 16 May. Amidst a heightened security protocol, matches will be played behind closed doors; several matches will be played on the day of relaunch. The German federation aims to finish all games across divisions by end-June. These plans hit a wobble when third-division team Dynamo Dresden had to be quarantined after two of its players tested positive for covid-19, but it has been decided that the club will play their games after completing the quarantine period.

The Italian government has allowed Serie A clubs to resume training from 18 May but a decision on restarting the league is on hold for now. The Spanish La Liga, however, is all set to resume from 12 June and end the season by end-July. Teams returned to full training on 8 May, and when matches resume, they will be played in empty stadiums, with players undergoing tests 24 hours before each game. The league may also hold matches every day to finish the season.

The world’s wealthiest and most popular league, the Premier League, is still undecided about resuming the season. The Football Association (FA) announced on 11 May that the league hopes to resume in June but there remain certain hurdles. Medical protocols in a country that continues to be badly affected by the pandemic is just one. There was talk of games in neutral venues away from populous cities but many clubs vetoed that.

For now, consultations between clubs and the government will continue till a decision is reached later this month. Clubs have resumed training though many prominent players have voiced concern. But with the league set to lose £300-350 million (around 2,700-3,200 crore) in broadcast revenue unless the season is finished, it’s safe to expect a return in June.

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