After the lockdown: should football be a 16-man game?

Shorter matches also being considered as leagues think of left-field ideas to finish their seasons, if and when they restart again

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In order to complete the current football season, now into its sixth week of suspension because of coronavirus, the sport may have to adapt its rules, authorities across the sport have acknowledged. As the major stakeholders of the wealthiest leagues in Europe draw up possible schedules to rush through remaining fixtures by August, compromises to ‘normal’ conditions are regarded as inevitable.

Across Germany, England, Spain, Italy and France there is a wide consensus that if the remaining matches in the 2019/20 calendar - numbering between 90 and 120 fixtures in each of those leagues - are to be squeezed into a short period, there should be no crowds in stadiums. Only essential playing and coaching staff, referees, medical personnel and broadcast technicians will be allowed in.

Live television coverage, in turn, is likely to be available for all top division matches. One British law that prohibits broadcasting live football between 3pm and 5pm on Saturdays - designed to ensure supporters go to stadiums - has been suspended by parliament, anticipating the behind-close-doors scenario and a strong public interest case for live televising of all matches.

But beyond changes to the staging of games, matches themselves may have to be played with tweaks to the rules. As the range of dates when so many fixtures can plausibly take place becomes shorter and shorter with many countries still under lockdown, the frequency of those matches increases. If teams have to play every three days, that means specific contingencies around fitness and recovery.

The last quarter of the 2019/20 season could even become a 16-man sport. That’s one radical idea, supported by the experienced Italian coach Claudio Ranieri. “My suggestion would be that we have, for this period, five possible substitutions per game,” said Ranieri, who points out that, though the number of Covid-19 cases among elite players has been relatively small, some who have had the disease will have spent several weeks convalescing through March and April.

"Players will be pushed to high levels of physical pressure, and those who have had the virus may feel it especially," said Ranieri, whose current club, Sampdoria, includes five senior players who in mid-March tested positive for Covid-19.

Ranieri, who has managed clubs through tight title-races and end-of-season relegation battles in Italy, Spain, and England - he led Leicester City to their stunning 2016 Premier League triumph - is not alone for thinking extra substitutions are a necessary, emergency rule change. The idea has been mooted beyond Italy, as governing bodies seek ways to preserve the integrity of disrupted competitions against the pressures of a ticking clock. The majority of clubs are determined to to finish their seasons because lucrative broadcast contracts are conditional on the 2019/20 fixtures being completed. Most clubs have also planned financially around future broadcast payments for the 2020/21 season, earmarked to begin in September at the latest.

After this period of inactivity, it was always going to be a bit of a 'false' end of season

Might matches themselves be shortened from 90 minutes so more fixtures can be played in a short time? Governing bodies have so far dismissed that idea, but there is, according to several leading club executives, a need for out-of-the-box thinking. “After this period of inactivity, it was always going to be a bit of a ‘false’ end of season,” said Ranieri, backing his argument that normal rules should be adapted to unique circumstances.

Perhaps elite football is actually well placed, in 2020, to look flexibly at short-term rule changes. In the last two years, the game has had to embrace a fundamental change - the introduction of VAR. Substitution laws have also been altered since 2018, with a fourth substitute permitted in extra-time of most major Uefa and Fifa competitions.

With Bundesliga players already back at training grounds, albeit practicing under restrictions, there is hope that top-flight football in Germany, which has a far lower coronavirus contagion rate than most of western Europe, can restart in mid-May. Other leagues hope it does so successfully, so they can adopt the Bundesliga health protocols and lobby governments to follow the German example.

Testing for the virus across players and matchday participants will be frequent and rigorous and among the questions being asked in England and Italy is whether fixtures need to take place in allocated ‘home’ stadiums when a more secure health ‘shield’ around matches might be better maintained by staging games in a smaller number of regional venues so there is less travel between fixtures.

Exposure to infection is the dominant concern. If a resumption of the season is allowed, and then a player contracts the virus, every teammate or opponent they had been exposed to would likely have to be quarantined, delaying fixtures for at least two weeks. That scenario would undo even the most imaginative plans.