Just as the leading leagues of Europe dared to breathe a sigh of relief, a crisis has exposed the fragility of Project Restart.
In Spain, several positive Covid-19 tests from players and staff at Fuenlabrada, a club targeting promotion to the top division, has collapsed the carefully reconstructed calendar.
The final round of fixtures in Spain’s second tier Segunda A were scheduled for Monday evening, with four clubs vulnerable to possible relegation and one place in the play-off spots still open to one of three clubs. Kick-off times, as usual for the final matchday, were aligned.
Health authorities in Galicia, Spain, reported that coronavirus tests returned a number of positives in the Fuenlabrada squad who were in a hotel in La Coruna waiting to play at relegation-threatened Deportivo.
At least seven players were among those tested positive, and as many as five members of the Fuenlabrada technical staff. All are reported to be asymptomatic.
The Deportivo-Fuenlabrada match was immediately postponed. But the remaining 10 Segunda A fixtures were not. By the end of the evening Deportivo, Spanish champions in 2000, were 20th in the table, two places from safety; their fate had always been out of the hands, although a win would have saved them if either Lugo or Albacete had not won their matches. Both won by one-goal margins.
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Fuenlabrada, whose staff were by Monday evening observing strict quarantine in their Galicia hotel, meanwhile watched as Elche and Rayo Vallecano, who both won their matches 2-1, leapfrogged them in the table. Elche moved into sixth place, the last of the play-off spots.
The crisis for La Liga and the Spanish Football Federation was gathering pace, with various Segunda A clubs questioning the basic principle that the country’s football authorities have tried to preserve through their ambitious Project Restart: sporting integrity.
Deportivo, many of whose supporters had gathered in public spaces ahead of what was to have been their make-or-break evening, have complained that the entire matchday, all 11 fixtures, was not called off once it was known Fuenlabrada could not fulfil their fixture in la Coruna.
“It is a very serious issue,” said Deportivo president Fernando Vidal. “What has happened means the principle of equality for all teams has not been preserved. The whole competition has been adulterated. We will fight this.”
Part of the ‘principle of equality’ is that kick-off times, when clubs are battling for promotion or relegation in different places, must be synchronised.
Fuenlabrada, meanwhile, anticipate not only a two-week period of anxiety about the health of affected employees but protests from Elche and Rayo Vallecano should the postponed Deportivo-Fuenlabrada match take place on July 30.
A Fuenlabrada win against a Deportivo who, as things stand cannot rise above 20th place, would push Fuenlabrada above Elche into sixth spot and the play-offs.
The play-offs have now been pushed back, because of the emergency, into August.
Elche, who played last Friday against a Fuenlabrada team that may have included players who returned positive tests, issued a statement declaring the decision to go ahead with all but one match on Monday “unjust.”
The club only went ahead with their fixture against Real Oviedo, winning 2-1, because, they said: “if we had not done so we risked punishment. But it’s obvious the integrity of the whole league has been directly affected.”
The repercussions spread. Protests are expected from Numancia, 19th in the table, from Rayo, seventh, who went ahead with their game against Racing Santander without Yacine Qasmi, their Morocco striker, left out of the XI at the last minute.
Qasmi, on hearing of the positive tests in the Fuenlabrada squad, reported to his club he had had dinner last week with a Fuenlabrada player and therefore had exposed to potential infection. “Yacine acted sensibly in telling us immediately, and so we did not select him,” said Paco Jemez, the Rayo manager.
As the Spanish football authorities met for crisis talks, Deportivo were contemplating refusing to play against Fuenlabrada on July 30 unless all the fixtures are replayed at the same time.
The delay already means complex contract issues for Deportivo, Fuenlabrada and the other clubs in the now-delayed play-offs. Many clubs had extended the contracts of players whose deals were due to expire on June 30 to take account of the rescheduled season, but only by three or four weeks. Many of those deals will now need renewing again.