The French government’s decision to prohibit team sports until at least September because of coronavirus resonates well beyond the country’s borders.
While France’s football authorities are expected to decide on Thursday whether or not to abandon the Ligue 1 season altogether, other major leagues in Europe are studying the implications for their own tentative plans to resume matches.
French prime minister Edouard Philippe on Tuesday announced that imminent easing of France’s rigorous lockdown would not include allowing “team or contact sports – until at least September”. He made a special point of signalling that football would not be made an exception, taking by surprise leading executives and players from professional clubs.
France has the fifth wealthiest league in Europe, and in common with the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and the German Bundesliga, a majority of Ligue 1 clubs had believed the best option for the sporting integrity and financial health of the game was to try and complete the 2019-20 season, allbeit with no spectators in stadiums.
Abandoning the season carries an estimated cost of €1.16billion (Dh4.6bn) to the sport in France, much of it lost income from broadcasters.
France’s Ministry of Sport appeared, in later briefings, to push back on Prime Minister Philippe’s blanket ban a little, by suggesting that if the public health crisis seems to have lightened significantly by July, there may some flexibility for behind-closed-doors games to take place in August.
But with over 100 matches left to play in a Ligue 1 calendar that was suspended in mid-March, the prospect of completing the top-flight season before September looks very slender – not least because Uefa have provisionally pencilled in dates in August to complete the 2019-20 Champions League and Europa League campaigns.
Bayern begin training
European football’s governing body still hope it will be possible to squeeze four remaining last-16 Champions second leg matches, plus the quarter- and semi-finals into the last three weeks of August and stage the European Cup final before the end of that month. The Europa League, which has 27 matches still to go, would also, under Uefa’s cautious plan, be completed in a hurry in August.
Uefa had earmarked those dates in the hope domestic leagues, which have been suspended for six weeks, would be all but completed by then. Earlier this month Uefa were even threatening their member football federations that abandoning their leagues would leave clubs liable to exclusion from the 2020-21 European competitions.
Their position has softened a great deal in the face of the obvious complexity of staging hundreds of games, even behind closed doors.
In France, where the pandemic has cost over 23,000 lives, there is government concern about crowds gathering around stadiums – even when fans are excluded from them – and breaking social distancing protocols, a concern raised specifically by Paris Saint-Germain’s victory over Borussia Dortmund in March.
The match was played behind closed doors as European governments began to understand the seriousness of the Covid-19 crisis. But PSG fans still gathered in their thousands outside the Parc des Princes that night despite police warnings not to assemble in large numbers.
PSG, whose win over Dortmund put them in the last eight, and Lyon, who have a last-16 second leg at Juventus pending, are still in the Champions League, and with football now effectively prohibited on French soil, Uefa are presented with an immediate problem should their projected August timetable for the Champions League follow the competition’s traditional home-and-away basis for ties. Philippe’s announcement means neither PSG nor Lyon can play at home.
PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi said his club would be ready to play their 'home' matches outside France. “We intend, if there is Uefa agreement, to play on in the Champions League at any time and anywhere,” he said.
According to French Federation president Noel Le Graet, Uefa’s reaction, when the news of the extended ban on team sports in France was announced, was ‘deep disappointment,’ and a hope that the possibility of matches being staged in August might be reopened.
But Uefa's greater concern is that the French government’s decision will influence neighbouring countries. The Bundesliga, where players have been in light training, observing restrictions on physical contact, for two weeks, had hoped matches behind closed doors could resume on May 9.
Several local governments have encouraged the idea, but Germany’s central government is understood to be reluctant to sanction a resumption of matches so soon.
Germany’s infection rate is far lower than those in Italy, Spain, France and Britain, where a number of elite players are wary of returning to action even under the elaborate safety conditions – isolation in hotels with team-mates, regular testing for Covid-19, no shared time in canteens and a minimum of staff in stadiums – being outlined.
And the reluctant players will be heartened by the French precedent. Among those who immediately welcomed the government decision to keep football under lockdown was the co-president of France’s main players’ union, Sylvain Kastendeuch.
“The government have understood that economic worries should not rank higher than public health,” he said. “Sport, and football in particular, should not expect to be made an exception.”