European football thrown into shambles by coronavirus outbreak

UEFA Euro 2020, one of the major events hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Europe. (Wikipedia)

The 2019-20 football season in Europe looks set to be scuttled as the current coronavirus outbreak looks set to drag on for several more months.

First noticed in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province in November 2019, the sickness now known as Covid-19 has spread all over the world, giving rise to a similar scenario depicted in the movie Contagion. Many countries have had severe economic and social disruptions as a direct impact of Covid-19. Some regions are in lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus.

As the worst appears to be over for China, the situation in Europe appears to be on the verge of spiralling out of control. The countries in Europe most badly hit by Covid-19 appear to be Italy and Spain. Both nations are known to be passionate about football. The top Italian and Spanish leagues are among the most well-known globally, and going to the game every weekend is a favourite pastime for many citizens of these countries. Italian and Spanish sides have also enjoyed success in European competitions. Due to Covid-19, all football activity has ground to a halt in many countries around the world, and the European countries are no exception. The Italian leagues were among the first to experience disruption as several matches were postponed due to regional lockdowns at the initial stage of the outbreak. As the situation deteriorated, more restrictions were put in place and the 2019-20 football season was put on hold.

As more countries began to buckle under the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak, their respective football associations had no choice but to halt all further matches. Most leagues across Europe have completed 80% of the season, with about 10 to 15 rounds left to play. There are also cup competitions whose fates are in doubt. The same goes for events organised by the European football confederation (UEFA). The upcoming European Championships involving the national teams has been pushed back for a year, as well as the Summer Olympics meant to take place in Japan.

UEFA Euro 2020, one of the major events hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Europe. (Wikipedia)

While the Italians were hit early on, the English were not particularly affected till early last month. Currently, all matches across England’s professional leagues are on hiatus till 30 April. the first sign of trouble probably appeared when Manchester United signed Odion Ighalo from Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua. The Nigerian was forced to train in isolation while the rest of his new team mates headed off to Spain for a training camp. At that time, Covid-19 was still seen as a distant threat. Most European countries were still complacent about the burgeoning pandemic. As more Europeans started falling ill, governments started feeling the heat, but it was probably too late.

Following Arsenal’s home defeat by Olympiacos CFP in the Europa League, the Greek club’s owner Evangelos Marinakis was confirmed to have Covid-19. Prior to his diagnosis, Marinakis had met with several Arsenal players and also attended a match involving EFL Championship side Nottingham Forest, which he also owns. As a precaution, Arsenal’s Premier League tie with Manchester City was postponed. More bad news was on the way for Arsenal as their manager Mikel Arteta also tested positive for the same disease after feeling under the weather. Fellow London side Chelsea then revealed that winger Callum Hudson-Odoi was also sick with Covid-19.

Following these bombshells, the English Football Association, the Football League, the Women’s Football Association and the Premier League made the painful decision to suspend all games in the top four tiers of the English football pyramid. With more than three quarters of the season gone, most teams had on average 10 to 15 games left to play. Liverpool were on course to claim their first league title after a three-decade wait. Sheffield United were having their best run in the top flight after spending a total of 24 years in the lower divisions. West Ham were facing the prospect of relegation after a string of poor results.

In the second-tier EFL Championship, Leeds looked set for automatic promotion after dominating the top two spots. Marinakis-owned Nottingham Forest looked like they could make it to the promotion playoffs. Both Leeds and Forest had once been prominent clubs in the Premier League but were relegated 16 and 21 years ago respectively.

Two weeks after all professional league matches were suspended, non-league games were also halted. Results were to be nullified and there would be no promotion or relegation for the current season. This was a big blow to many clubs whose players had worked really hard to bring their respective clubs where they were. In the fifth-tier Nationwide League, AFC Barrow was in pole position and would be rewarded with a place in EFL League 2 if they maintained their lead.

Scottish football was similarly affected. Not many people may not be aware of it, but Scottish fourth-tier outfit Cove Rangers may be the hardest hit. Hailing from the outskirts of Aberdeen, Cove had been playing in the semi-professional Highland League for many years. They had contested unsuccessfully in the 2018-19 playoff finals against last-placed SFL League 2 side Cowdenbeath but overcame Berwick Rangers to earn their place among Scotland’s elite football teams the following year. At the time the league was halted, Cove were runaway leaders of SFL League 2 and were poised to gain promotion to the next level. This would mean two successive promotions for them. Although Scotland introduced a playoff between the bottom-placed league side and the strongest semi-professional team in order to make the game more competitive, it was still difficult for smaller teams to break into the big league. Cove was only the second non-league side after 2015-16 Lowland League winners Edinburgh City to gain promotion this way.

Halting the football season midway is clearly no easy decision. It has severe repercussions that can have adverse impact on clubs’ finances. The various football associations, after consultation with their respective governments, only made such a move in the name of public health and safety as part of a concerted effort to contain the pandemic. Inevitably, it will affect which club wins the championship, qualifies for European competitions, gets relegated or promoted. There must also be consideration to ensure minimal disruption to the 2020-21 season.

The way things stand, there is no way the various football leagues in Europe will be able to finish the 2019-20 season by the end of May as is usually the case. The Covid-19 situation may also take another six to nine months to improve. Many countries have banned large gatherings of people and implemented social distancing rules in a bid to reduce the risk of infection and this looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. It is likely that the first full season of European football may only return in 2021-22. The health risks to the public brought about by kicking off the 2020-21 season on schedule are rather grave. That said, it may be pertinent to delay the opening of the new season till the end of September at the earliest.

The main problem with delaying the kickoff of the 2020-21 football season is the fixture congestion towards the end, given that Euro 2020 will now be held in the summer of 2021. It may actually be pertinent to scrap the 2020-21 season altogether and play the last few rounds of 2019-20 from March 2021 onwards. There were similar scenarios in the past when sporting leagues were suspended during the Second World War. Technically, the world is at war with a devastating virus that is highly contagious. It has been shown to mutate into a few different strains causing some symptoms to vary in severity. It has also been established that an increasing number of Covid-19 patients have reported gastrointestinal disorders in the early stages of the disease in addition to cough and fever.

All that being said, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how vulnerable Europe is. While China appears to be slowly turning the corner, Europe is now the new epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. The effects on the local people’s lives have been profound and thousands have succumbed to the disease. One of the ways it has touched people was by scuttling the 2019-20 football season that had started promisingly for many teams playing in Europe’s top leagues.