Over the course of the last two months professional football across Europe has ground to a halt. In an attempt to lend some shape and certainty to the European football landscape, UEFA announced in April that all its European members had until 25 May to make a decision about their respective leagues. Some leagues have already called time on their seasons, while others are aiming for a restart in the near future.
This article looks at the path followed by some of Europe’s top football leagues to date.
England – The Premier League
All professional football in Britain was suspended on 13 March 2020, initially until 4 April, with that date being extended on 19 March to 30 April. As the epidemic grew, 30 April became unrealistic and the date was pushed back further.
The Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ has been the subject of much media attention over the last month with clubs reportedly divided over practicalities including the health and safety of players and coaching staff, the possibility of games being played at neutral venues and the time-scale and format for playing the final fixtures.
Following a relaxation of the government’s lockdown guidance effective yesterday, health consultations were held with players and managers in preparation for a return to training this week. On Monday the Premier League will hold a shareholders meeting where clubs will be asked to approve plans for ‘Project Restart’.
Yesterday also saw the announcement of UK government guidance for a stage one return for professional sports (Elite sport return to training guidance: Step One), which includes a prohibition on contact (including tackling) and equipment sharing, with these elements of training to be phased in. Each club is required to name an existing member of staff as a “COVID-19 officer” who will be responsible COVID-19 risk assessments and implementation of the guidance. The protocols have not been finalised, but it is understood that athletes will be required to opt in to the guidance in order to resume training.
France – Ligue 1
On 30 April 2020 Nathalie Boy de la Tour, the President of the Ligue de Football Professionnel (“LFP”), announced that Ligue 1 was going to be brought to an end. De la Tour’s hands were tied as the French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, had announced two days earlier that all sporting events in France (including those played behind closed doors) would be banned until September.
At the time the season was brought to an end, Paris St-Germain were 12 points clear at the top of the table, however it was not simply a case of calling it as it was. The LFP determined the final table standings on a “points per match basis”. For example, PSG had an average of 2.52 points per match since it had 68 points from 27 matches. All other clubs, save for Strasbourg, played 28 matches.
Netherlands – The Eredivise
The Eredivise was first suspended in March 2020 as a precautionary measure. It was unclear for some time whether Holland’s top league would continue, with rumours circulating that it would resume on 19 June behind closed doors.
On 24 April 2020, the Dutch FA (“KNVB”) took the decision to ‘void’ the season. Ajax and AZ Alkmaar were at the top of the league with 56 points each, with Ajax ahead on goal difference. By voiding the season, there was no need to decide an overall winner and no promotion or relegation for 2019/20. Ajax were nominated by the Eredivisie to go directly to the Champions League group stage, while AZ Alkmaar will have to play in the second qualifying round, in the usual way.
Belgium – The Juplier Pro League
On 2 April it was announced that the Belgian Pro League was to be the first major European league to be officially cancelled, with the league table to be taken as it stood, with Club Bruges to be declared champions. Club Bruges were 15 points clear at the top of the table with only one remaining match.
That decision was to be ratified on 15 April with decisions regarding promotion/relegation and European spots still to be determined by a ‘working group’. On 9 April, the Board of the Pro League announced that the formal ratification would be pushed back to 24 April, leading many to query whether the decision could be overturned. The decision was again delayed on 3 May.
On 6 May, the Belgian government announced a countrywide ban on professional sport until after 31 July, leaving the Pro League with few options. Although there has not yet been a formal announcement the Belgian league has confirmed that the working group “set up by the Pro League to study the sporting and financial consequences of the coronavirus crisis [to present] to the clubs at the general meeting on May 15”. A final decision on all of the effects of the decision to cancel the season are yet to be formally concluded.
Germany – The Bundesliga
The Bundesliga took its first tentative steps towards halting football in Germany on 10 March, when it announced that the Rhineland Derby (between Borussia Monchengladbach’s and Cologne), together with five of the nine matches that following weekend, would be played behind closed doors.
On 13 March is was announced that all Bundesliga matches would be suspended until 2 April, with that date pushed back to 30 April on 16 March. On 6 April a handful of German clubs, including Bayern Munich, returned to training, reportedly keeping to small groups with no contact.
Italy – Serie A
Serie A was amongst the first of the European leagues to suspend matches, halting the games scheduled for the weekend of 22-23 February. On 9 March 2020 the Italian national Olympic committee (“CONI”) announced that all domestic sporting activity was suspended until 3 April, at the earliest.
On 26 April, Serie A announced that teams would be permitted to return to individual training on 4 May, with most teams taking that opportunity despite the absence of an agreed medical protocol.
Yesterday, on 13 May, Serie A clubs voted to restart the season on 13 June.
Spain – La Liga
On 23 March all football in Spain was suspended indefinitely following an announcement from the monitoring commission established by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (“RFEF”) and La Liga.
At the end of April, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, announced a 4 stage plan for the return of Spanish football with the following key milestones:
4 May – Players will be able to return to club training facilities for individual training.
18 May – Initial small-group training will be allowed, with limits on numbers involved.
1 June – Full squad sessions will resume.
5-12 June – A return to La Liga action with matches played behind closed doors.
At the time of writing, La Liga appears to be on course to hit these milestones, with tentative plans to play games in quick succession (every day for six weeks) to finalise the season.