The coronavirus’ rapid spread across Europe — and the seriousness with which the pandemic is now being treated — is being felt in the world of soccer, where schedules have been thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 outbreak.
This marks the first time since World War II that a major league has been suspended, and others could follow suit. For now, La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga are resolved to play games behind closed doors, while Champions League matches are already being played without fans.
The Premier League, meanwhile, felt its first major impact when Manchester City’s fixture vs. Arsenal on Wednesday was suspended with less than 24 hours notice.
Arsenal’s players have put themselves into self-quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19 via Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis during their recent Europa League match. Marinakis has tested positive, although Olympiacos has issued a statement confirming all their technical staff and players have tested negative.
It seems inevitable, however, that the virus will spread among players at some point, and Hannover 96 defender Timo Hübers has already been confirmed as the first case in German soccer.
In Asia, meanwhile, World Cup qualifying playoffs have been shelved until June, while some Chinese Super League clubs are not even in the country, as the league’s scheduled February start date has been pushed back until at least May.
While health problems and containment are the top priority, the repercussions of the coronavirus in soccer could be devastating.
If league play is permanently concluded for the season in Italy, there could be playoffs to determine the winner, European qualification and relegation. Or Juventus, with a slender one-point lead over Lazio, could be crowned champions. Or the whole season could be rendered null and void.
All three options are wholly unsatisfactory, and could result in protracted legal battles that last for years. Not all teams have played an equal amount of games, and the integrity of the competition — arguably the last bit of integrity soccer has left — would be threatened by any of the proposed solutions.
In the Premier League, meanwhile, it would hardly be fair to runaway leaders Liverpool if the Premier League season was concluded without a winner. The Reds need only six more points to secure their elusive first top-flight title in 30 years.
The cancellation or postponement of matches could have serious financial consequences too, not least from the loss of revenue from fans. But the most financially impactful move could actually be matches played in empty stadiums.
Borussia Dortmund has stated it may lose up to $3.4 million per match in revenue when the Westfalenstadion hosts games without fans. The Independent estimates the cost of a closed-door policy in the Premier League to be between $1.3 million and $7.7 million per match for the hosts.
If matches continue to be held in empty stadiums, teams with high wage structures (like Manchester United) or significant stadium refinancing costs (like Tottenham) will suffer in the coming seasons.
The teams who could be hardest hit by playing in empty stadiums, however, are those lower down the league pyramids, for whom gate receipts are lifeblood.
The English Football League (EFL), which represents the three divisions below the Premier League, has expressed concern that some clubs could go out of business if games are forced to be held behind closed doors.
Many clubs in Europe’s lower leagues operate in precarious financial circumstances, and simply could not afford to refund ticket costs, while forgoing their main source of revenue for the remainder of the season.
According to The Guardian, few clubs are insured for missing out on income due to a public health epidemic, so a prolonged period of games without fans (or season cancellations) might force some teams into bankruptcy.
The impact of the coronavirus, therefore, will be felt long after Purell panic-buying is a thing of the past.
And it’s not just clubs with tight budgets that will be facing financial issues. UEFA and FIFA both have potential issues with their showpiece tournaments.
Not only will the Champions League come under increasing pressure to postpone or cancel its matches (due to issues with teams crossing borders), but any delays to the domestic European league seasons will butt up against this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament.
The European Championship is being held across 12 countries, and there may be pressure to postpone the tournament. If it’s delayed until next summer, it will likely interfere with FIFA’s newly expanded 24-team Club World Cup format, which is due to take place in China in June 2021.
Sympathy is generally hard to come by for UEFA and FIFA (particularly due to the latter’s track record of impropriety and large cash reserves), but it’s clear that the financial devastation in soccer caused by COVID-19 could last long after the pandemic has passed.
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