From Serie A to Bundesliga, leagues in Europe face similar challenges and uncertainties
Stakes are high as officials try to navigate through crisis and salvage season
The major leagues of Europe have welcomed Uefa’s decision to postpone Euro 2020, freeing up the month of June for club football to compete its various competitions.
But with so many games still to play, and no clear dates when it might be deemed safe to open up stadiums, there are towering challenges ahead.
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In the country with the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Europe, football is no priority. Nor under the current lockdown in Italy, is it easy to imagine the imminent resumption of Serie A with fans travelling the length of the peninsula and to Sardinia. In common with most leagues, Italy would be willing to again stage games behind close doors, and, with Euro 2020 postponed, there is now room to anticipate the most riveting title race for many years, with Lazio and Juventus jostling for a prize Juve have claimed every year since 2011.
The backlog of top-flight matches is bigger than elsewhere: Serie A clubs have 12 or 13 games still to play, and, at a meeting of club executives on Thursday, a plan will be discussed where, if there is positive medical advice, fixtures could resume by the second weekend of May. A later restart date would make it very hard to meet Uefa’s target of closing the club season by the end of June.
Some Italian clubs, unwilling to consider the possibility of settling final league positions via play-offs rather than playing out all the fixtures, will argue that the season could go on into July, and the 2020-21 campaign begin in September. But with the European championship now scheduled for June 2021, the concern is that next season would then become an exhausting ordeal.
Spain is under emergency laws preventing citizens from leaving their homes except in specific, restricted circumstances. But there is an ambition for the country’s most popular pastime to be up and running in time for the domestic season to be completed by the end of June. In Spain’s top division, which Barcelona lead by two points over Real Madrid, there are 11 games left.
“Anything other than finishing the season would be an injustice,” said Luis Rubiales, head of the Spanish Football Federation, apparently rejecting various proposals for a shortened Liga season, including the idea of using the Primera Division table from the first half of the season – comprising each club’s opening 19 games, all teams having played one another once – as the final table. The head of the league, Javier Tebas, also rejects that.
Otherwise, the league and federation chiefs are at odds, as they tend to be, and there was a familiar public quarrel between the two bodies almost immediately after Uefa had postponed the European championships to allow club competitions some breathing space. The federation’s Rubiales accused the league’s Tebas of misguided priorities, citing, among other things, the federation’s offer to make beds and accommodation at its training headquarters available for public health needs. He urged leading clubs to do the same with their high-spec campuses.
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The German top flight, with its 18-team structure, has a less taxing list of fixtures outstanding than the other major European leagues, although most clubs still have nine games left to fulfill of their 34, and two have 10. “We are still a long way off from resuming the competitions,” said Christian Seifert, chief-executive of the Bundesliga. “But we have some sort of certainty in planning and we could go into July.”
The top German professional clubs are still mindful that Uefa, having put off the European championships, will want their club competitions, the Champions League and Europa League, protected and the finals played by the end of June.
They believe that when competitions are allowed to start up again, some weekends may be given over the remaining knockout ties in Europe – RB Leipzig are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and Bayern all but there, while Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt have unfinished last-16 ties in Europa League – while midweek nights are used to make up the Bundesliga backlog.
Although matches have been suspended officially until April 2, the broad feeling is that a May restart is a more realistic target. “Nobody can accurately foresee how long the coronavirus factor will be affecting us,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, CEO of Bayern Munich, whose lead in the Bundesliga table stands at two points over Borussia Dortmund, with RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach also within striking distance.
There can be no professional football in France before April 15, the government’s strict laws on social confinement in place until then. Few expect conditions to have changed enough by then that fixtures could restart in mid-April, but if Ligue 1 can be under way within the first half of May, there is optimism that fixtures, with most top-flight teams having 10 games still to play, could be completed by the end of June, a key date for practical purposes everywhere in Europe because most player contracts due to expire this season run until June 30.
“We have more flexibility now and we are grateful to Uefa for postponing the Euros for a year,” said Nathalie Boy de la Tour, president of the French league. “It’s vital given what’s at stake in terms of sporting integrity and the game’s economy.”
Didier Deschamps, the head coach of the world champions, France, also conceded a year’s delay in Les Bleus’ attempt to add a European crown to their World Cup was “a wise decision”.
If and when Ligue 1 comes out of quarantine, there will be no great suspense about who wins the title. Paris Saint-Germain, who are also through to the Champions League last eight, are 12 points clear of second-placed Marseille.
Published: March 18, 2020 06:42 PM