With each passing hour of the coronavirus outbreak, the immediate future of Europe’s major leagues grows increasingly uncertain.
The postponement of Euro 2020 until 2021 may allow Europe’s major seasons to reach their full conclusions, but there are no guarantees that the virus threat will dissipate in time to make this possible. Some leagues, therefore, may declare the current leaders as champion, while freezing relegation and expanding league places next season. Others may null and void the entire season.
(If it were up to this writer, all European seasons would be played to their conclusion with the correct amount of games, when it is safe to do so, no matter how long it takes. It seems far more reasonable to finish this campaign and cut the following season short than to alter the rules of engagement for the ongoing leagues.)
Unfortunately, it’s not just the integrity of the world’s major soccer leagues that are at stake. With no play, continuing wage bills and the prospect of eventually returning to action without crowds — which can cost millions in lost revenue — many clubs will likely fall into severe financial issues. This is particularly true for small and mid-size teams, whose razor-thin margins are already being tested to their limits.
Life truly may never be the same again when this pandemic is over. Our collective approach to group gatherings may change, and our daily routines and protective measures will evolve.
COVID-19 is going to change the way we live. And it could also change soccer in a permanent way.
When Europe’s top leagues decide how to settle this season and those beyond, it will be impossible to please all clubs. In the Premier League, for example, voiding the season would upset Liverpool, who are just six points from clinching their first title in 30 years. Freezing relegation might be thoroughly welcomed by the bottom-feeders, but it will be met with fierce opposition by the second-tier teams who are denied promotion.
If some of Europe’s biggest teams are left unhappy by the decisions made by their respective federations, they may choose to seek greater prosperity elsewhere.
They may reignite the calls for a breakaway European Super League.
Discussions of a breakaway division for the continent’s elite sides have been around, both formally and informally, for the better part of a quarter-century. For the continent’s wealthiest teams, the concept of leaving their respective divisions and forming a closed competition certainly has its appeals. Those clubs could set their own rules — free from UEFA’s shackles — and profit from weekly blockbuster ties. They would be unencumbered by the trifling matter of having to play against less glamorous sides who aren’t as rich as them.
In November 2018, German publication Der Spiegel revealed that a coalition of 16 major European teams had been making secret arrangements to start a new competition. The invite-only league would reportedly feature 17 of the European teams with the strongest TV audience, along with revolving guests from Portugal, Russia, the Netherlands or Turkey.
Such discussions are kept under the cloak of darkness as they would likely draw ire from the majority of soccer fans. However, Arsene Wenger is among those who believe a breakaway Super League is “inevitable” because it is desired by those in power.
It appears no one champions the concept of a breakaway more than Andrea Agnelli, the chairman of Juventus and also the chairman of the European Clubs’ Association (ECA). In that position, Agnelli holds great sway over the agenda of discussion for UEFA’s 55 members, and he has made no secret of his desire to shake the foundations of European soccer.
In March 2019, Agnelli made the claim that top European clubs want a new competition. Earlier this month, the ECA chairman agitated for change once again by criticizing Atalanta’s impressive progress through the Champions League.
“I have great respect for everything Atalanta are doing, but without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access to the primary European club competition,” Agnelli said.
“Is that right or not? Then I think of Roma, who contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s ranking. They had one bad season and are out, with all the consequent damage to them financially. The point is how we balance the contribution to European football and the performance of a single year.”
In other words, Atalanta do not deserve the Champions League place they earned because they don’t have the pedigree to be among the best, and qualifying for the most elite competition should be more about a history of making money than actual sporting achievement.
If this is the attitude of the person in charge of the organization that represents the interests of UEFA’s professional clubs, it is manifest destiny that will eventually come to pass. The COVID-19 outbreak would be a catalyst for this change.
If decisions made by UEFA and their respective domestic governing bodies in the coming weeks upset the wealthiest teams, it may be justified, and highly lucrative, for them to pick up their ball and walk away.
Of course, there are much more important pillars of society under threat from the coronavirus than professional sports. Health and safety should remain our primary concern.
But there is no hiding the fact that this suspension of action will have tremendous long-term implications for the beautiful game.
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