Games and leagues are taking increasingly drastic measures to do their bit in containing the Coronavirus pandemic. The effects will put the sporting world’s logistical capacity to an excruciating test.
It began with a couple of closed-door games in Italy. Those spilled over to the Champions League and other domestic competitions. Today, LaLiga suspended its operations as UEFA placed a hold on Europa League and Champions League games. Closed-door games remain the norm in the Bundesliga, but that could quickly change as authorities ramp up efforts to contain the outbreak.
Football’s – and indeed sport’s – role in making sure this does not spiral out of control, is not a minor one. Sporting events represent the largest periodic gatherings of people in many cities across the globe. And the signs so far is that authorities are being slow to take it seriously.
Baby steps help the virus spread?
Any epidemiologist will tell you that underreporting of cases is not only likely – it may as well be certain. Younger, healthy individuals may pass off a Coronavirus infection as a cold and go about their lives with little hassle. In the process, they might be spreading the virus. This is not like, say, the Ebola virus where the disease is so severe people will invariably need to go to hospital.
This makes the Coronavirus a silent and effective contagious pathogen, which brings it closer to the vulnerable people it will hurt the most.
With characteristics like this, a sporting event with thousands of people, where teams are displacing between cities or countries, becomes a vector on steroids. It has the potential to infect thousands of people who will in turn infect dozens more. And with continental games, such events may even help the disease go on a road trip abroad.
Bearing this in mind, it makes little sense that football’s approach to the outbreak-turned-pandemic has been incremental. A couple of closed-door games here and there at first. Then, some postponements. Now we’re at the point of competition-wide suspensions and even questions about whether they’ll be able to make the calendar work with these suspensions. The UEFA EURO and Copa América are well into the doubt zone.
A line between common sense and panic
However, there are very many complications that make the “CLOSE ALL THE THINGS” approach impractical. I’m not going to delve into them, but you can probably guess. Panic ain’t a good thing. Neither is gratuitous and unnecessary economic damage. Suffice to say, these things are hard to manage. They’re hard to get right. And the spread of the virus leaves us at an inherent disadvantage to do so, especially when it’s a pathogen we know close to nought about.
Thus, there are reasons to argue football should have been canceled altogether. But there’s plenty of sense on the other side of that discussion as well. Does it make sense to have football without fans? What’s the point of having a closed-door game if fans are going to crowd the outside of stadiums anyway?
The common denominator
Let’s not sugar coat this. The football calendar is crammed as it is. Any delays, postponements or suspensions will inevitably be a headache to reschedule. The Bundesliga, having fewer games, may be able to accommodate some sort of pause, but that will of course depend on its duration. Other competitions, like the Premier League or LaLiga, will have a harder time sorting it out.
Scrambling to clean up
How hard a time, you ask? So hard, that they may be forced to come up with alternative arrangements. Shortened calendars, play-offs, early termination of the leagues, you name it. Make no mistake, all of those options will be on the table. The 2019-20 season will most likely become a freak season where you see these strange arrangements realised. Just earlier on Thursday, a report floated around Twitter that the Bundesliga was considering ending the tournament immediately. The scheme would involve declaring the season deserted (ie. no Meisterschaft) and foregoing relegation. The best-placed 2. Bundesliga teams would still go up. Those reports remain unconfirmed and, in our opinions, unlikely. But it’s shocking on its own right that it doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched.
You might think “let them have their pause and then resume everything”. But the summer would tap you in the shoulder and go, “I’m full as well”. Which leads us to how international football is affected. CONMEBOL suspended the first two rounds of the South American Qualifiers for Qatar 2022 after FIFA authorised the move. UEFA canceled a couple of European friendlies. In the face of club season hiccups, the summer competitions fall immediately into the “maybe” column. And it unravels from there.
It goes without saying that these precautions are of the utmost importance. We can all live with the EURO being postponed – just as long as we actually live for it. That may sound like a joke, but when a public health issue is preying so readily on the lives of human beings, football is a bit of a footnote. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a massive problem that will yield economic consequences of its own, but it does put it into a better perspective.
The state of things in Bavaria
Bavaria was one of the first German states to order large gatherings banned. Perhaps due to its proximity to Italy, the state was swift to take steps to prevent the spread of the virus. Bayern are of course behind such decisions and are actively working to make good on them. The club’s terms of sale stipulates full refunds when a game has to be played behind closed doors, which is more or less the standard in the league.
As for the competitive aspect, there is yet much we need to know before we can make a full assessment. Thus far, the Bundesliga has stopped short of suspending play, unlike Spain or Italy. Rather, the decision is to play the games in empty stadiums. Presumably, and having seen what’s gone on in other countries, that could change the instant the outbreak really goes loose in Germany.
The good news for the club is there doesn’t seem to be much chance, so far, of internal infection. Clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea, not to mention the Italians, are dealing with their own internal plights. Players, manager and staff of many of these clubs have been confirmed to be infected with the Coronavirus. The lessons they learn can help Bayern prevent such a situation.
To me, it seems inevitable that all football in Europe is brought to a halt. Our favourite club is somewhat privileged to have thus far been spared of the most dramatic bits of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to it. Something has to give. And hopefully that will be what common sense dictates it should be.