Postponing Euro 2020 for 12 months and rescheduling the tournament for June and July next year was the easy part for UEFA. Finding a way to complete this season’s Champions League and Europa League amid the coronavirus crisis will be a far greater challenge, and supporters should brace themselves for the prospect of the pandemic forcing both competitions to be abandoned without completion.
It is a grim possibility, but sources have told ESPN that so many obstacles stand in the way of games being played in the Champions League and Europa League that it will require a Herculean effort by all parties — clubs, broadcasters, associations and governments — to navigate a route through the chaos and uncertainty that has affected all levels of society.
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A video conference on Tuesday involving all 55 of UEFA’s national associations swiftly resolved the issue of postponing Euro 2020. That decision has enabled UEFA to clear space in the calendar for domestic leagues and European club competitions to resume and be played out to a conclusion during June and July, but solving the crisis in football is not as simple as creating dates in the fixture calendar. Therefore, UEFA have set up a working group, which includes the leagues and European Club Association (ECA), to “examine calendar solutions that would allow for the completion of the current season and any other consequence of the decisions made today.”
There are many issues to be overcome here, and they are all complex. The primary obstacle is, of course, the coronavirus. All of UEFA’s discussions in the coming days and weeks will be hostage to the spread and effects of the pandemic. If it continues to force countries into lockdown, there will be absolutely no prospect of football being played.
It’s mid-March and Italy, France, Norway and Spain are in lockdown. The United Kingdom has also told its citizens to stay at home, with those over 70 and other groups regarded as vulnerable urged to self-isolate for a period of 12 weeks from this weekend. If that advice holds and people are forced to stay home for 12 weeks, it will be mid-June before it is deemed safe to return to something approaching normality. The issues facing UEFA are clear. UEFA may simply run out of time to get their club competitions up-and-running again, never mind find a way for them to reach a conclusion. But even if the crisis begins to ease, there are numerous other problems that must be resolved for the Champions League and Europa League to resume.
A UEFA source told ESPN that an obvious issue will be travel between countries, if or when football resumes, as every country in Europe is at a different stage of its own coronavirus crisis. Will one emerge before the other, and if so, will its citizens be able to travel to a nation that is still wrestling with the pandemic?
If, for instance, Atletico Madrid are drawn to play against RB Leipzig, will their players be allowed into Germany without entering a period of self-isolation, and will they be able to return to Spain without once again entering quarantine?
Most countries have now imposed travel bans on their citizens and flights have been grounded. Sources at UEFA have told ESPN this is a major issue that may make it impossible to stage fixtures, because there are no guarantees that restrictions will be lifted quickly when, or if, the pandemic subsides. This is also a factor in why staging knockout ties at neutral venues may prove impractical. One country, hosting teams from two different countries, would appear to be an impossibility for months, at this stage.
But let us be optimistic for a moment and suggest that, within a month, the pandemic will have eased enough for football to resume, even if only behind closed doors. This is clearly a hopeful scenario considering the situation, but if football restarts in late-April or early-May, there are still many sporting considerations that must be addressed.
Due to the lack of time to get the competitions played — UEFA have said they’d like both the Champions League and Europa League to be completed by June 30 — sources have told ESPN that one-legged ties are the most likely solution, but we are still at the round of 16 in both competitions, so that means UEFA must resolve four rounds, including the finals. If the quarterfinals and semifinals are to be played over 90 minutes, the clubs and broadcasters must accept the loss of revenue from the reduction in the fixture list. Participating clubs must also accept the jeopardy of being drawn to play away from home — which places them at a significant disadvantage — unless a neutral venue can be found for each tie. (It’s also worth noting that the 2020-21 Champions League was due to begin on June 23 with the first leg of the preliminary qualifying round.)
The possibility of playing the semifinals and final over two weekends as a mini-tournament has, as reported by ESPN, been floated as a solution, with the Champions League last four being played in Istanbul and Europa League in Gdansk, the two original host cities for the finals of both competitions this season. (It’s worth noting that the Turkish Super Lig is still taking place.) But would the Turkish and Polish governments be prepared to welcome the supporters of four teams, potentially from four different European countries, just weeks after those countries had been placed in lockdown?
Quite simply, UEFA faces a logistical nightmare in terms of getting both competitions to the finish line, and the biggest problems have nothing to do with football. The intention is there to find a way, but some of the challenges may prove insurmountable.
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