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The Coronavirus Conundrum

Alex Woodward puts forward his idea for how football should react to the coronavirus

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Image Credit: KelvinStuttard

This week, multiple football leagues around the world have suspended or cancelled games. Many games have been and will be taking place behind closed doors and there have been suggestions that leagues and international events will be moved or scrapped entirely. All of this is down to the coronavirus. Players, including Daniele Rugani have tested positive and clubs including Leicester City have reported players feeling symptoms. This has turned into by far the biggest story the world of sports has seen in a very long time, maybe in my entire life.

A few weeks ago on the York Sport Report (University Radio York), I said that this year and this season would go down in history as the ‘Coronavirus Year’, and I think that the more time that has passed, the more correct that statement becomes. As I sit here writing this, all big sporting stories centre on the coronavirus. Leagues, tournaments, games and events are being postponed, suspended or cancelled entirely. Football is in a slightly awkward situation, alongside the NBA and NHL. With MLB or Formula One, the season hasn’t started, even in the absolute worst-case scenario, nothing is particularly lost because there is currently nothing to lose. Yes, races or games but not like football. The Premier League has had 29 matchdays, the Football League has had 37, the FA Cup and European tournaments are well into their latter stages and we’ve all been eagerly awaiting their conclusions. So, whatever the decision taken by the relevant sporting authorities will be, there’s a lot on the line for all teams up and down the country and around the continent. I’m going to focus on leagues over the course of this article, but the same conclusions could be drawn up for tournaments such as the Champions League. For me, there are three possible options for how the 2019/20 season goes from here, two that I don’t think would work and one that I think is the best of a bad situation.

Option 1: Cancel and reset
Arguably the easiest (and in my opinion worse) option is just to cancel the entire thing now and decide that there will be no champions, no relegation, no promotion, no anything, it would be like the season had never happened in the first place. There are obvious problems with this starting with the very top of the Premier League. Liverpool have had a momentous season and more than deserve the title after it, they could easily still go on to be the best team England has ever seen in 132 years of top flight football and it may be the last chance for many of their players to win it all. Also, to address the elephant in the room, I’m a Leeds fan. Leeds have been waiting since 2004 to return to the top flight with potential gigantic repercussions if they don’t manage it this year. As well as this, Leeds, alongside West Brom, will be hoping that they can reap the financial rewards of all they’ve done this season (if they are to finish as the top 2). In general though, for every team, player, staff member and fan, it borders on insulting to tell them that everything they did this year, every hour they poured into the team just doesn’t matter. Yes there are bigger problems in the world than football but that doesn’t mean football should mean nothing, especially after you’ve played 75% - 80% of a season, when the league has settled into how it is more or less going to finish. Then of course come the wider implications from cancelling the season. How and why should FFP count? The season was voided and everything that happened on the pitch is considered as having never taken place then why should spending count? How do we deal with tickets that have been sold, the reason football is priced so highly is because it matters, friendlies (as these games would essentially now be) do not sell for anywhere near as much. Can lower league sides afford the financial loss and refund season ticket holders, if the season is void they absolutely have a need to. We can't just go back to normal next season with this, all football for the rest of time is partially illegitimate. Voiding 28 games is far far worse than voiding 10, voiding 75%-80% of the season is far worse than 20%-25%. This leads us to option two.

Option 2: Cancel and finish
We’re over 75% of the way through the season which is a lot of it, so it’s fair to say that every team have had their chance to make their season and not much will change. So why don’t we cancel the season, but then do what we would normally do once the season reaches it natural conclusion. Liverpool are champions (they would be anyway), promotion and relegation remain the same and cup competitions can go away (it’s one year why does it matter?). The issue is now at the bottom end and in the middle of the leagues. Norwich and Bournemouth were expecting 9 more games to save their seasons, Villa were expecting 10. Last year, Villa were 11th after 34 games in the Championship and ended up getting promoted after catching on fire at the end of the year. Form can change and seasons can change in the final 10 games. Why do they not deserve the chance to save themselves, why do they have to hear “tough luck” due to something they couldn’t control, some teams have had easier schedules and some have had harder schedules so how is this right. This for me is very slightly better than option one as it means that this season has meant something and because voiding 10 games (in the case of the Premier League) is better than voiding 28. However, this is still bad and it’s why I push for option three.

Option 3: Play it out whenever we can
This is not perfect; this barely borders good. However, it is the best of a bad situation. My opinion is that we suspend the season, wait for it to pass, and then resume. Obviously, this leads to problems down the road. If the season ends in August for example, what do we do? That decision would have to be taken down the road, maybe a shortened season, maybe no cup competitions in 2020/21. However, the most important thing is that we would know from the get go, there would be no harsh surprise for teams if they know from the beginning that there would only be 28 Premier League games (that’s a random number for an example), this season would also still count, meaning all the hours put into it wouldn’t mean nothing. Everything gets the closure it deserves, yes it would mean next season would be heavily affected as well but in the grand scheme of things nothing would change. Come 2021/22 everything would be back to normal and that, for me, is good enough. Why not just do what I supported on Tuesday’s The Sports Blitz (anchor.fm/alex-woodward29) and play behind closed doors? I’ve changed my mind on playing behind closed doors as it puts players, officials and staff under undue risk of infection which and they deserve safety measures as well. So, for me, this is the only option that doesn’t have completely unacceptable downsides.

We’re not going to have a perfect solution, and nothing will come close to being as preferable as just playing the season out would have been. However, the pandemic we face has led us to no other choice. There is no other way to end this article than to wish you all good health and to remind you to follow all the precautions put forward by medical professionals. If not for yourself, then for those who really need you to.

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