We live in unprecedented times. The global COVID-19 pandemic that’s forced people into social distancing and isolation has impacted all walks and ways of life to extents that will be unknown for a while. Amidst the struggles faced and the loss of life around the world, the fate of the Premier League and the rest of the footballing pyramid may seem trivial. And yet it’s important.
The Premier League faced criticism for its initial response to the pandemic as it took hold of the country. It took the Olympiacos owner’s positive test to call off the game between Manchester City and Arsenal on 11 March, and things rapidly snowballed over the week. Leicester City players were isolating, while Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi tested positive. The FA considered playing behind closed doors, but it took Mikel Arteta testing positive to suspend the league until 4 April. That then became 30 April, and now the FA have agreed to extend the season indefinitely past 1 June.
However, the difficulties have piled up. Football teams face a packed schedule, but we are set to pass a point where even normal schedules will be difficult to finish. The Premier League was set to have just three games in May, and the Championship just one (and that’s ignoring the lower leagues, who will have similar issues). It is logistically impossible to finish them all in time for the new season. When you throw in European competitions (even if they are made one-legged), the FA Cup and the international break(s), there is no time. So what do we do?
The league could be ruled null and void. Some clubs would back that, but it would be a farcical disservice to Liverpool’s incredible season. There will be an asterisk attached forever, but they deserve the title nonetheless (and for all purposes have won it already). That extends to the likes of Leeds United too. You have to finish this season before moving on. You could keep the table as it is (adjusted for games in hand), but the bottom three would not accept it given the tight margins. You could calculate the points of the remaining games based on a points per game average.
Or, as suggested in other parts of Europe, host play-offs for European qualification and relegation. Having a six-team play-off for either scenario might be untenable, however. Wayne Rooney’s suggestion of continuing the season as it is, in preparation for the 2022 Winter World Cup, also makes sense. Depending on when football restarts, that could be an option.
Of greater significance is the financial implications at all levels of the game. Without regular revenue, teams lower down the ladder will be in serious danger of collapsing. The Premier League is insulated against this, but even they will be hit (in terms of transfer fees). Protecting those that will be hit badly has to be the number one priority.
Perspective is vital. Jobs are affected, lives are lost, and everyone’s facing sacrifices of wildly varying degrees. Similarly, football will have to sacrifice just like everyone else – some teams will find the eventual solution more unfair than others. However, it makes little sense to forget the past 29 games on the basis of a pandemic. That would reward the failures and punish the successes. Whatever method is used to fix this season should be based on the games that have been played. Some will gain more than others, but largely it would be realistic.
It’s an unenviable task to decide what’s to be done, but football is the peoples’ game. In a time when illness sees no distinction between people, football has to be meritocratic. For now, all we can do is pray, stay at home, and hope that everything goes back to normal.