Coronavirus presents an unprecedented crisis for sport. It requires the sharpest of intellects, the clearest of minds, leaders with a vision, a plan, prepared to put the collective good of the nation, not just finance, or the game, before all else. Photo: Jon Super/AP Photo
Coronavirus presents an unprecedented crisis for sport. It requires the sharpest of intellects, the clearest of minds, leaders with a vision, a plan, prepared to put the collective good of the nation, not just finance, or the game, before all else. Photo: Jon Super/AP Photo

OPINION: There is no magic solution to football's virus shutdown

By MARTIN SAMUEL Time of article published Mar 17, 2020

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Coronavirus presents an unprecedented crisis for sport. It requires the sharpest of intellects, the clearest of minds, leaders with a vision, a plan, prepared to put the collective good of the nation, not just finance, or the game, before all else.

So here is what the Premier League owners should do when they finally meet on Thursday.

Nothing.

Perhaps a little administration and housekeeping. Set the date and format of the next meeting, for instance. Make decisions on funding for the lower leagues. What is considered to be top of the agenda, however, is yet more corona-madness.

The desire for a finite schedule, for an early resolution to a problem that will take years to unwind, is lunacy. What should be done? Nothing should be done. Nothing needs to be done. Nothing to do with fixture planning, titles or promotion and relegation, anyway.

If the Premier League executives wish to agree a means of helping lower league clubs who will obviously fall more quickly on hard times without gate money, that would be a good use of their time. If they wish to debate how much should be available, adopt a formal process of application for clubs in hardship, and a means of assessing each case, that is a meeting worth having.

The rest of it — do Liverpool win the title, should Leeds come up, do we void the season, do we play on even if the hiatus stretches to September — none of it needs to be called in a rush. Nobody, not government, not the epidemiologists, and certainly not Karren Brady or Kenny Dalglish, know what this country will look like in four days let alone four months.

Positions change almost hourly. Views are outdated bulletin to bulletin. By the end of yesterday, government had as good as ordered restaurants and bars shut, quarantined anyone over 70 and advised the public to steer clear of all urban centres, particularly London. Yet football is going to have a firm handle on its future by Thursday. Good luck.

We are in for the long haul here. We will almost certainly be dealing with coronavirus next winter, too, and for every winter in the foreseeable future. One day we may view it as we do influenza, with a vaccine available annually to those most at risk and what is sadly considered an acceptable toll on human life.

The World Health Organisation puts seasonal flu deaths globally between 290,000 in a good year and 650,000 in a bad one. It is not unthinkable that we learn to live with coronavirus that way, too.

So the idea that a decision made in haste will stand the test of even the shortest stretch of time is risible. That titles can be prematurely awarded as an administrative call, not on the field or in front of fans, or that clubs can be invited from the Championship to the Premier League simply because of a frozen moment in time, are products of a society that seeks instant gratification.

We wait, that’s what we do. Wait and see where we are come summer; whether it is possible to complete the season, even behind closed doors. Only when 2019-20 threatens to encroach on 2020-21 do we have a call to make on voiding the campaign.

Baroness Brady was not wrong to say abandonment was a consideration; she was just premature. Dalglish is not wrong to say Liverpool deserve the title, but that call does not need to be made, even discussed, yet. The one grace football — indeed all sport — has right now is time.

The first big meeting of the week will be held by UEFA and a single significant call is required. If the 2020 European Championship finals are put back, as is likely, then the domestic leagues and European club competitions have room to breathe.

It is the most logical move and the easiest resolution. That tournament is self-contained and has not even begun. It can be played any time the schedule allows between now and 2024, its next edition.

Yet there is also talk UEFA will come up with a half-baked plan to get the 2019-20 Champions League and Europa League competitions over the line.

A week-long festival of football in this year’s final locations, Istanbul and Gdansk, is one projected scheme — with two semi-finals and the final being played in the same neutral venues.

How and when? If UEFA knows when the continent will be clear of coronavirus, perhaps they might share that information with the specialists in the field, who have no clue. And the clubs will be clear, too, yes? Which ones, exactly, considering the competition has not progressed beyond the last 16 yet?

As it stands, there are 12 teams still involved in the Champions League. Some, such as Chelsea, may view elimination as a matter of time; others, like Napoli and Barcelona, are tightly balanced at 1-1. Certainly, Real Madrid will not see a 2-1 deficit from the first leg against Manchester City as an insurmountable obstacle.

So how do UEFA imagine they will whittle 10 down to four in time for this jamboree? Award all uncompleted ties to the winner of the first leg? Please let me be in the room when that one is explained to Andrea Agnelli, whose Juventus team went down 1-0 at Lyon.

And then what of the quarter-finals? UEFA, like a great many around football, are getting ahead of themselves. Nothing about the Champions League can be, or needs to be, decided just yet. Least of all the ultimate destination.

Turkey is behind much of Europe in the spread of coronavirus with only 18 cases detected so far, but there are 10,300 citizens yet to return from pilgrimages to Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

So how can UEFA be certain that just as central Europe is emerging from the worst months of coronavirus, Istanbul will not be peaking? And, if it is not, why would a country that has relatively escaped the havoc in Western Europe wish to welcome thousands of fans, or even just the international media, from countries most affected?

The last 15 Champions League finals have been played between teams from just four nations: England, Spain, Italy and Germany. All are in crisis. If Turkey has not experienced similarly critical conditions, why would they wish to risk developing them through football tourism?

The fact is there are only two solutions to the endtimes football season: wait it out, and see where we are, or abandon it and start again later in the year, if possible. Social media is full of brilliant ideas for play-offs and re-imaginings of the remainder of the campaign, but if they were not present in the rule book at the start, they cannot be adopted now.

Imagine if the promotion play-offs had been introduced midway through the 1986-87 season. That at the start of that campaign the top three had been going up and then it was arbitrarily agreed that third to sixth would be separated by another round of matches. Third place would sue, and win.

It is the same this season. We cannot introduce play-offs for relegation or Champions League qualification if the process was not established. We cannot decree who should be in or out based on present league position, either.

As for freezing the campaign and promoting and relegating teams as they stand, this is the most absurd idea of all. Incredible things happen in the final 10 games of the season; incredible escapes, incredible late charges.

Leicester would not win the title in 2015-16 if 2014-15 had stopped after 29 games. Not because they weren’t top of the table — they very much were — but because they wouldn’t have been in the Premier League in the first place.

After 29 games of the previous season, Leicester were bottom, so they, not Hull, would have been relegated. Do you see how arbitrary such a finish would be? If we stopped last season at the same stage as we are now, Sheffield United would not have been promoted and three teams that survived in League One — Bristol Rovers, Rochdale and AFC Wimbledon — would all have gone down.

And Liverpool would have been champions, because Manchester City’s crucial game in hand would not yet have been played.

That is why simply stopping a season at a mid-point cannot work. Aston Villa would exit the bottom three if they win their game in hand, but would be relegated as is. And if that were allowed to stand, it would mean the club was punished for reaching the Carabao Cup final.

‘Serves them right for taking the domestic cups seriously. Bad luck Villa, it’s relegation for you.’

So it’s nonsense — much like the idea of promoting Leeds and West Bromwich Albion having played 37 games of a 46-game season. Twice in the last four years, a team in the top two of the Championship has fallen out of it in the final stages: Leeds last season, Brighton in 2016.

So nothing is certain about promotion. Equally, why do the 37 games that Leeds and West Brom have played count for more than the 37 games played by Fulham, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Preston to get in their present play-off positions? Just because Liverpool are 25 points clear we cannot pretend all other outcomes are so neatly resolved.

But here’s the good news: we don’t have to. We don’t have to make daft, hasty, irrational calls; we don’t have to establish schedules or return dates — like April 3 — that are now meaningless.

Yes, best practice must be established in some areas — the minutiae, such as what to do with those players who are out of contract come the previously anticipated end of the season — but the temptation to formulate some grand plan must be resisted.

Italy are considering splitting Serie A over two seasons; that is how much time we may have on our hands with this disease.

The owners cannot approach this Thursday’s meeting with a solution that amounts to a shopping trolley full of toilet rolls. As many are discovering, that really is no solution at all.

We are not hearing so much about Dele Alli’s disciplinary charge of late. Perhaps the Football Association now understand the difference between a foolish joke, quickly regretted, and matters of real consequence.

HISTORY IS BUNK, ANDREA. ONLY NOW MATTERS

The elite of European football are very keen on the importance of history, particularly when it comes to determining who gets to play in the most lucrative competitions. Andrea Agnelli of Juventus was even advocating valuing historic contribution over domestic league performance, so that a storied team finishing 10th gets in ahead of a smaller, newer club in a qualifying position.

Yet historic privilege is a terrible idea and Jean-Michel Aulas, president of Lyon, has proven that. As club officials around Europe ponder ways to conclude the season, Aulas said: ‘There is another solution according to experts: the historical ranking over three years or five years.’

Using that system, the Premier League champions for 2019-20 would be...Manchester City, currently 25 points behind Liverpool. And that’s why history is bunk. In sport, only now matters.

MONEY MAN RUMMENIGGE LETS IT SLIP

Germany’s Bundesliga did not play last weekend after all, but not before Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (left), chief executive officer of Bayern Munich, had explained why their match at Union Berlin should go ahead behind closed doors.

‘At the end of the day, it’s about finances and the big outstanding TV payments to the clubs,’ he said. ‘I think it’s right that, under the current conditions, this weekend’s games take place.’

Now it really isn’t all about the money — the prime reason for playing behind closed doors is to finish the league and preserve its integrity — but even if you are so shallow you think it is, don’t come out and say that.

These are the people, never forget, who think they must run football.

In 1999, Paddy McAloon, the singer-songwriter behind Prefab Sprout, suffered double detached retinas. Initially rendered blind, and after sight-saving surgery, he was for a time unable to sit upright or lean forward, read or look at screens.

Supine, he turned to shortwave radio for inspiration. The result was I Trawl The Megahertz, a 22-minute masterpiece, sad, poignant and beautiful, an opaque life story, narrated by a female American voice, its haunting melody set to an orchestral arrangement of flugelhorns, clarinets and cellos.

And it was achieved in a form of isolation. Nothing to do with sport, but relevant to the time. You really should search for it, too.

Daily Mail

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