By Bradley Stead
The UK government have announced that football in England won’t be played until June 1st at the earliest.
‘Step 2’ of the government’s road map out of lockdown states “permitting cultural and sporting events to take place behind-closed-doors for broadcast, while avoiding the risk of large-scale social contact.” While not to occur any time before June.
Meanwhile, the German Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga are scheduled to return to action next weekend (Saturday 16th May). The gaze of the Premier League and EFL will no doubt watch these ‘Geisterspiele’ (‘ghost games’, as they are being called in Germany) closely as they prepare and plan for their own returns.
However, there are already stories and incidents coming out of Germany which demonstrate the difficulty in restarting top-level sport during a pandemic.
One example came from Hertha Berlin as their striker, Salomon Kalou, live-streamed himself breaking social distancing protocols. The Ivorian videoed himself shaking hands with some of his teammates and staff, as well as ignoring requests from a doctor to leave the room where Hertha BSC defender Joran Thorunarigha was being tested for Covid-19.
The CEO of the Deutsche Fußball Liga, (DFL, German Football League), Christian Seifert, said: “I was really p*ssed because hundreds of people worked tens of thousands of hours to make it possible to continue the season.” Adding, “This should have been the last wake-up call.” Kalou has since apologised and been suspended by his club.
Also, as has widely been reported, the entire Dynamo Dresden squad and staff have been placed into a 14-day period of isolation after two players tested positive for the coronavirus. The Dresden squad had only returned to full training the day before these positive tests. Dynamo Dresden are currently bottom of the 2. Bundesliga table on goal difference, a point from the relegation play-off spot and 4 points from outright safety.
Without going into the minutiae of international comparisons, the German government appear to have handled the Covid-19 pandemic better than their UK counterparts. Despite this, however, players have still contracted the virus and a whole squad has had to return to isolation.
If this situation was to occur in more teams, then the return of football becomes increasingly unlikely. It is not hard to imagine a similar situation happening in England. Indeed, at the time of writing, Brighton has announced that 3 of their players have tested positive for coronavirus. Furthermore, Spain’s La Liga, who are also attempting to return to playing games, have announced that across their top 2 divisions, 5 players have tested positive.
The finances involved in the Premier League will mean that it is likely that they will at least attempt playing the remaining games by the time June comes around. Lower down the football pyramid this becomes more difficult, as the estimated cost of testing a team 3 times a week is said to be around £30,000, which would be unaffordable for most lower league clubs.
One should also consider the possible moral dilemma of footballers receiving Covid-19 tests, while front line NHS workers are not, and the damage that would do to the image of football.
That is perhaps one reason why, as has been reported by The Athletic, that Leagues One and Two are set to be abandoned, and that possible solutions to the league table will be voted on in the next few days. The most likely of which appears to be a points-per-game (PPG) model that is weighted for how many home and away games teams have remaining.
KLTV has already reported on one possible solution of using the table at the halfway stage of the season, an option that is being considered for France’s Ligue 1, and how this would affect Huddersfield Town as well as promotion and relegation from the championship.
It had been reported that teams in the Championship were determined to play their remaining games, but it appears that more and more teams are now wanting the season to be concluded using this weighted PPG with only playoff games being played to decide the third team who would be promoted.
Under this model, Leeds and West Brom would remain as the top 2, with Fulham, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Preston making up the play-offs. Charlton, Luton and Barnsley would be relegated to League One. Huddersfield would finish 17th and safe from a second relegation in two seasons.
What is clear, as the Bundesliga are demonstrating, is that football returning to action will be very difficult, and will take longer than we all probably hope and expect.
TV broadcasting rights and sponsorship money will probably push the Premier League into playing. Add into the mix UEFAs need for European qualification to be based on “sporting merit”, and the fact that the bottom 6 of the Premier League are opposed to relegation being decided on either PPG or by playing at neutral venues. But if players become infected and squads need to isolate, then all these arguments will be rendered moot.
For clubs in Leagues One and Two, it appears that their seasons are about to be ended. The Championship and Premier League will no doubt try and hold out until June 1st and attempt to play the season out, but as German football is showing, it will be very, very difficult.