Six biggest questions facing world soccer amid COVID-19 pandemic

liverpool-lifts-champions-league-trophy

Liverpool's Jordan Henderson lifts the trophy to celebrate with his teammates winning the Champions League final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, Saturday, June 1, 2019. (Francisco Seco/AP)

More than two weeks have passed since a ball has been kicked in most European soccer leagues due to the COVID-19 outbreak. With marquee international tournaments and World Cup qualifiers being postponed as well, there is time to squeeze in any remaining fixtures.

The Premier League is suspended until at least April 30 and La Liga cannot resume until the Spanish government gives the OK. All Italian sport is cancelled until April 3, though that could be pushed back even further.

As of now, the plan in most countries is to finish their current domestic seasons. But there are several logistical questions to be asked if the action resumes.

Here are six big questions facing world soccer if it returns this season.

Will European domestic seasons become void?

The most burning question is whether the ongoing seasons actually finish.

The Premier League will surely push back the start date for the 2020-21 season – which is currently set for Aug. 8 – to accommodate the remaining games. However, players will need time to train once the current seasons return, so even if leagues commenced in the first week of May, surely teams need time to gain match fitness.

According to the Telegraph, there was a plan to award Liverpool the title, promoting Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion – the top two sides in the English Championship – which would form a 22-team Premier League for next season, should the current campaign be called off.

Other league bodies may choose to adopt that strategy if necessary. However, with billions of dollars on the line for several entities, there will be pressure to finish the domestic calendar.

Will the Champions League and Europa League finish?

That leaves one other precarious situation involving European and domestic cups.

With Italian teams most affected due to their early suspension date, clubs participating in multiple competitions will have 14 to 20 games to make up. Even Manchester City (17), Sevilla and Getafe (16) have some serious fixture pile-ups.

The finals for both the Champions League and Europa League were postponed on Monday. UEFA also said they “hope” to complete the club season by June 30. There’s even been a suggestion to move European matches to the weekend.

This could create serious danger for the players. Once they’re in playing condition again, they’ll likely have to play every three days. That increases the injury risk for the squads.

It will take scheduling wizardry to fit all of these matches over the next two months, provided the action returns in early May. However, like the domestic leagues, it appears that UEFA is determined to finish their competitions and crown a champion.

How are player contracts and transfers affected?

If all competitions are finished, there’s another quagmire to navigate.

Professional player contracts in Europe end on June 30. The likes of Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Manchester City’s David Silva have deals that are set to expire on this date. The summer transfer window is also open from June 10 to Sept. 1.

If European leagues finish their current seasons, then both of these dates need to be altered. The European Club Association (ECA) will meet on Friday about these issues, per ESPN, so surely a solution will be hashed out.

What are the financial ramifications for clubs?

This is the largest influence in the sport. The ECA will discuss the loss of income through broadcasting revenues and attendance on Friday, which is understandable.

The Athletic reported that Premier League clubs will have to return £762 million ($1.2 billion CAD) in broadcasting revenue if the season is lost. Teams across Europe may have to follow suit, too.

Further down the pyramid, the financial impact will affect the second-tier Championship and third-tier League One more than the Premier League. However, most top-flight teams don’t generate healthy enough profits to stomach these losses.

Even staging matches without fans could help the broadcasters, but clubs in all divisions rely on matchday revenue to stay afloat financially. This is tolerable in Serie A, La Liga or the Premier League, but not in the lower leagues.

Make no mistake, the financial impact will drive most of these decisions over the next few months.

How will Canada’s MLS teams and the CPL handle fixture congestion?

A lot of European leagues were in the final months of completion, but that is not the case in the Americas, including MLS.

The 2020 season was only two games old when it was called off. The league subsequently postponed all games until May 10 with 32 matches remaining in the regular season.

Not only do players have to return to match-playing shape, many teams will have to travel tens of thousands of kilometres for away games.

The Vancouver Whitecaps logged more than 51,000 kilometres last season and will surely reach a similar distance this year. Toronto FC (32,970) and the Montreal Impact (36,376) were less affected but if fixtures are scheduled every three or four days, this will take its toll on the squads.

The Canadian Premier League accounted for travel when organizing the 2020 schedule, and even if the season started in mid-May as opposed to the original date of April 11, there should be enough leeway to make up for lost time.

One solution for MLS could be staging the MLS Cup Final in December again, adding an extra month to the league calendar. Otherwise, teams may be ragged once the dog days of summer roll around.

How will international soccer be affected?

The postponement of Euro 2020, Copa America and World Cup qualifiers enables domestic leagues to finish their respective seasons. But this also creates a scheduling headache for the international calendar over the next two years.

The Euros and Copa America have been moved to the summer of 2021. The UEFA Nations League and other tournaments will be rearranged as a result, creating a jam-packed festival of soccer next year.

This will start a domino effect when it comes to the 2022 World Cup. Rescheduling this month’s postponed fixtures to December 2020 or 2021 is a possibility, even though they aren’t traditional international breaks. But it may be necessary in order to complete qualifying before the World Cup draw in April 2022.

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