It was something of a throwaway line at the end of last week’s post: “Of course if the daily scaremongering about the potential impact of the coming of the apocalypse, or as it is more familiarly known: Coronavirus, is true to its word we could be facing a situation where we see the completion of the Premier League’s programme of fixtures behind closed doors in empty stadiums.” Little did I realise at the time that those words would prove to be so prescient.
Mrs Football Nerd and I learnt of the bad news on Monday that our usual spring football-watching European trip was going to be impacted, with the announcement that the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) in France had ruled that all scheduled Ligue 1 games would be played behind closed doors until the 15th of April, which of course included our planned trip to the Parc Des Princes to watch PSG take on Nice. The exclusion was then extended to cover all Ligue 2 matches which also kiboshed our hastily identified fall-back plan of Paris FC v LB Châteauroux.
It would obviously be churlish in the extreme, even for hopeless football obsessives such as ourselves, to bemoan decisions made in the best interests of protecting society in entirely unprecedented circumstances purely because of the impact on our football-watching plans, but it does make you think, worry and fear how things will play out from here.
France are of course not alone in the precautionary measures they are taking. Italy as the second worst affected country after China, has suspended all sport until at least the 3rd of April, all La Liga fixtures in Spain will take place behind closed doors for the next two rounds if not beyond, while in Germany it was announced that Borussia Monchengladbach’s Bundesliga tie against Cologne on Wednesday and a further five of the nine scheduled weekend matches would take place with fans locked out.
In the European competitions Atalanta’s trip to Valencia and PSG v Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, as well as five of the eight Europa League Round of 16 first leg matches have or will be played out in empty stadiums if not postponed altogether. The games taking place next week between Barcelona and Napoli, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, and Bayer Leverkusen and Rangers have all been announced as following suit. One has to believe that this may be just the tip of the iceberg and it can only be a matter of time until the game as a whole may be suspended on at least a temporary basis.
Up until Tuesday night/ Wednesday morning the Premier League and its clubs had remained somewhat stoic in keeping plans for games as normal, that is until it was announced that Arsenal’s scheduled trip to Manchester City on Wednesday evening had been postponed due to a number of, as yet unnamed, Gunners’ players and staff having come into contact with Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis who has tested positive for Coronavirus, in the second leg of their match two weeks ago and needing to self-isolate.
Beyond those players and officials themselves, consideration needs to be given to their families, friends and anyone else they will have come into contact with. Right now it seems that Arsenal’s game at Brighton on Saturday is scheduled to go ahead, yet one can’t help but fear that this is just the beginning for the sport in this country and we will inevitably end up going the way of other countries.
Of course, with Wolves due to take on Olympiakos this evening the news brought an immediate appeal for that match to be postponed as the trip “poses unnecessary risks to their players and staff”. That appeal was rejected by UEFA and while Wolves agreed to abide by the decision for the match to go ahead without fans in attendance, they did urge European football’s governing body to “consider alternative options moving forwards, as this will not be the last fixture to be affected by coronavirus”.
Football cannot of course in any way be immune from the impact of the pandemic that we are all facing. As Jürgen Klopp so succinctly put it in response to a Madrid-based journalist when asked about the possibility of playing some matches behind closed doors, the charismatic German responded somewhat spikily: “It’s not about me as a manager, it’s about being a human being. Some things are more important than football and we realised that in this moment… We need time to find a solution for that. I don’t know enough. Whatever will be decided, we will respect. It’s clear that we will accept that but I don’t know how much sense it will make in this moment. That is how it is”.
While the Premier League clubs and others from the top leagues in Europe probably have sufficient cash reserves to sustain themselves through a period in which matchday income is halted either through games being played behind closed doors or through a complete suspension or postponement of fixtures, real concern exists for those clubs lower down the footballing pyramids where income streams are not as broad or diverse, but who still have expenditure commitments just like any other business.
Originally this post was going to be about the batte for European qualification and the tightness of the table between the teams placed fourth to eleventh/ twelfth in the Premier League; that all seems a bit redundant now given the uncertainty over the rest of the season and how things might play out. One thing seems assured however: that this season will be unlike any we have ever witnessed before with in all likelihood increasingly drastic measures taken as the authorities try to act to contain this potentially deadly virus.