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It seems daft to continue. Arsenal played West Ham so their players have to be tested now and postponed? They also played Portsmouth who then played another side so more postponed. 

Then Leicester have had players with symptoms.. they played Villa...

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Updated: What happens if the season can’t finish? Coronavirus and football explained



So what now for football? Will Liverpool be robbed of their first title in 30 years? Will Leeds United miss out on promotion? Will Euro 2020 be cancelled? Will half a dozen English Football League clubs go bankrupt?

So many questions, so few answers.

There are two things we can say for certain: the situation is evolving rapidly and nobody really knows where this is heading.

Since writing the first version of this piece on Wednesday, the number of global confirmed cases of COVID-19 has risen to nearly 130,000, with more than 4,700 deaths. The number of cases in the UK is now approaching 600, a third more than when I started this piece 24 hours ago, while there are more than 1,300 cases in the United States.

In terms of football, the biggest development in the English game came on Thursday night when Arsenal confirmed their head coach Mikel Arteta had tested positive for coronavirus.

Arteta is to self-isolate in line with government guidelines as, the club said, will the full first-team squad and coaching staff. Arsenal are understood to have sent all staff an email asking them to self-isolate if they have been in “close contact” with Arteta.

Arsenal’s Premier League match against Brighton on Saturday has been suspended, while the north London club’s FA Cup clash with Sheffield United a week on Sunday is surely now under threat.

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber described the threat of coronavirus as an “unprecedented situation”, adding: “First and foremost our thoughts are with Mikel Arteta and we wish him a speedy recovery. It’s absolutely essential the health and wellbeing of individuals takes priority and with that in mind Saturday’s match has been postponed.”

The Premier League responded to Arsenal’s announcement by calling an emergency meeting on Friday morning to reassess the entire fixture list.

“This is really disappointing but I took the test after feeling poorly,” Arteta of his positive test. “I will be at work as soon as I’m allowed.”

Earlier in the day, next week’s Champions League quarter-finals had already been called off due to players at Juventus (who were due to play Lyon) and Real Madrid (who were to play Manchester City) being told to isolate. Three Leicester City players had also been told to self-isolate as a precaution after reporting symptoms, while Chelsea have also cancelled training over a coronavirus scare.

Before the announcement of Arteta having contracted the virus, the most notable event was that British football authorities, unlike many of their European counterparts, had not yet suspended the season.

As the number of cases ramps up, the most important question remains the one we posed on Wednesday: when will the UK opt for the “social distancing” policies seen elsewhere and cancel mass gatherings, such as football matches?

You will have noticed the question starts with “when” not “will” and that is because most experts believe we are about two weeks behind Italy, in terms of COVD-19’s spread, and a week to 10 days behind France and Germany.

Some experts believe Italy, which is in lockdown, has been particularly badly hit because an early case was mishandled and other, much luckier, countries have learned that lesson. Others say that could be wishful thinking.

But whether the outbreak is as bad in the UK as it is in Italy is irrelevant for the question posed above, as banning mass gatherings is one of the few levers any government can pull right now and the only real question is when you pull it.

Austria, Bulgaria, France, Japan, Poland, Romania, Spain and Switzerland are just some of the countries that have either recently cancelled events involving crowds over a certain number, typically 1,000 people, or forced them to take place behind closed doors. Among the events to have been hit so far are football matches, bike races, motor shows and marathons.

The British government, citing expert advice, has resisted that urge. In fact, it has tried hard to put out the “business as usual” signs, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson attending England’s rugby union match against Wales last weekend and a Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) summit on Monday telling sports bodies to keep calm and carry on.

The Athletic has spoken to some in the game who believe that message was reckless and if you know you are going to have to ban big gatherings at some point, you might as well get on with it.

“Let’s just pause for a couple of weeks and see how the thing develops,” says Andy Holt, the owner of League One’s Accrington Stanley.

“There are financial ramifications but they must be secondary. My advice to my 75-year-old mum is stay well clear of tightly packed crowds. I can’t tell her that whilst at the same time not tell our supporters.”

But others, including government sources, have said the decision was entirely guided by public health experts, who have to balance the containment benefits of a shutdown against the economic and social impacts. If the latter outweigh the former, cancelling games or going behind closed doors is an overreaction. There were also concerns about how ready British sport and the general public were for such a move, and the risk that closing stadiums would just send more fans to watch sport in pubs.

Forty-eight hours is a long time in pandemics and politics, though, and on Wednesday the British government announced a £30-billion package of loans, tax holidays and extra funding for the National Health Service. And soon after Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered his coronavirus budget, WHO officially classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, a global outbreak of a contagious disease.

Several sources have told The Athletic they believe this weekend’s round of fixtures in the UK will be the last with crowds for several weeks but the official line is life goes on as normal until Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says otherwise. Others believe the turnstiles will be shut as early as this weekend. The government said on Thursday that it was “considering the question” of banning major events, including sports events, but that it was not recommending it at present.

It has even been suggested that broadcasters will be asked to block their pub customers from receiving games, such is the concern about fans simply swapping one tightly packed crowd for another, with added beer and bar snacks.

Despite Denmark, Ireland, Norway and the US becoming the latest countries to suspend their football seasons, the British authorities have let another 24 hours pass without putting out the “closed” signs. The official line is that the leagues are still being led by the advice coming from the government and its public health experts.

But the stance, which is now so out-of-step with most of Europe, is attracting criticism privately and publicly. There is also disagreement between the leagues about how best to proceed, with the EFL upset about a Premier League plan to plough on behind closed doors without any consideration for how that might affect clubs further down the pyramid that depend on matchday receipts.

What impact would a ban on crowds or a total ban on games have on clubs? 

To answer this question you need to split it into two parts, as the impacts are very different for different clubs.

Every competition organiser, from the EFL to UEFA, is desperate to complete their competitions, as best they can, this season. And that means carrying on behind closed-doors until June, if necessary.

Match-day revenues only account for about a seventh of Premier League clubs’ total income, with more than half coming from broadcasters. Playing games without fans would be far from ideal but it would not bankrupt them.

That, however, is not the case further down the league pyramid. For clubs without parachute payments in the Championship, match-day income is about a third of their total pot, rising to two thirds in Leagues One and Two.

It is only seven months ago that Bury became the first club to crash out of the EFL for financial reasons since 1992. Bolton nearly joined them. Since then, Derby County, Macclesfield Town, Oldham Athletic and Southend United have all been late in paying their players. Derby claimed this was a one-off mix-up but the other three, and several other clubs, are effectively living from one home gate to another. Going behind closed doors could send them to the wall.

The EFL has some reserves but not enough to pay hundreds of players’ wages until next season. The league raised this during Monday’s DCMS meeting but it knows the government cannot go any further than the chancellor went on Wednesday. So any help will be limited to tax deferrals and state-backed cheap loans from banks. There will, however, be a long queue for those from companies that can claim to be far more fundamentally sound than most lower-division football teams.

And just to underline how precarious the situation is for those outside the Premier League, on Wednesday evening the Scottish Professional Football League announced there was no rainy-day fund to help its clubs, saying “every single penny of income from sponsorships, broadcast deals and cup revenue is already paid to the clubs as fees”.

Some sources have told The Athletic most British clubs are insured against “force majeure” events that prevent them from playing the games that generate the wages. But it is unlikely these policies will cover all their costs indefinitely and the level of cover across the leagues varies widely.

There are several more factors to consider if we lock the gates but play on, too. Do season-ticket holders get a refund? What about sponsors? Nobody wants to consider these questions right now, though.

So, the prospect of a month or more of games without fans is alarming enough but it is considerably better than a month or more without games. This would bring all of the economic pain mentioned above with the added nightmare of unfinished business.

Nobody The Athletic has spoken to believes the 2019-20 season will simply be written off but many are deeply concerned about how you complete it.

In the US overnight on Wednesday into Thursday the NBA took the decision to suspend its season indefinitely after a Utah Jazz player provisionally tested positive for coronavirus.

In football, perhaps the best example of this is Italy, where the football federation has already admitted it might not be able to reschedule all of Serie A’s postponed games. If this is the case, it could just end the season with the table as it is now or move to a play-off format to decide the champions and European places, as well as who gets relegated.

Given their entitled view of European club football, we can probably assume Juventus would vote to end the season now, handing them a ninth straight title, with 12 games not played. But they are only one point clear of Lazio, with an inferior goal difference, and Roma are only three points behind Atalanta for the fourth and final Champions League slot. At the bottom, Lecce are in 18th, the final relegation spot, but just three points behind Udinese in 14th.

On Wednesday night it was announced that Daniele Rugani, the Juventus and Italy defender, had tested positive for the virus, with the club enacting isolation procedures and Inter, who played Juventus last weekend, suspending all “competitive activities”.

Turning to the Premier League, nobody will begrudge Liverpool a richly deserved title — although their rivals would no doubt enjoy reminding them about the asterisk attached to this one — but Arsenal, in ninth, are eight points behind Chelsea in fourth, with a game in hand, and Manchester United are only three points behind Chelsea. It is hard to see either of these clubs — or Sheffield United, Tottenham or Wolves —  saying they are willing to call time on this season just yet.

And that is before you consider relegation from the Premier League, where the bottom six are separated by eight points, or promotion from the Championship, where 13th-placed Queen Park Rangers are only six points behind Preston North End in the last play-off spot, sixth. And so on and so on. If you can’t finish the season, how do you decide who goes up and down? And would any decision bring endless lawsuits?

While writing this piece, two Europa League games — Sevilla v Roma and Inter v Getafe — were postponed because of travel restrictions between Italy and Spain, raising serious questions about UEFA’s ability to finish that tournament by the end of May, although European football’s governing body has dismissed those fears. For now.

Finishing these competitions is essential and unlike rugby union, which will probably complete the final round of this season’s Six Nations tournament in the autumn, club football cannot start a new campaign until the previous one is settled.

Two of next week’s Champions League last-16 games — Juventus v Lyon and Manchester City v Real Madrid — have now been called off as a result of Juve’s and Real’s players going into quarantine.

With two games already cancelled in the Europa League, and more certain to follow, there are huge questions about UEFA’s ability to finish these competitions on time. One possible solution would be to move from two-legged ties to single matches, but even this assumes that players will be available to play the games.

The domestic leagues and UEFA are still saying they can fit everything in by the start of June but this does depend on the situation improving so that everyone is able to play at least two games a week from mid April. If that slides any further, there simply are not enough days in April, May and, at a push, early June to get the club competitions wrapped up on schedule.

Why don’t we just play these games in the summer, then? 

As things stand, this season’s final club game in England is the Championship play-off final on Monday, May 25, a bank holiday, with the Europa League final scheduled for Wednesday, May 27, in Gdansk, and the Champions League final in Istanbul on Saturday, May 30.

Given everything else that happens in a European sporting summer, not to mention the desire to give players a month off and fit in a lucrative pre-season tour somewhere (although those plans are being rewritten as fast as the Europa League fixture list), extending the football season into June would not be popular with broadcasters, clubs, fans, players or sponsors.

But the real elephant in the room here is Euro 2020, which is scheduled to start on June 12, 13 days after the Champions League final. Where is the first game? Rome.

On Tuesday, UEFA was forced to issue a strong denial when Italian media started reporting that several countries had asked the governing body to postpone the championship, which takes place this time in 12 different countries. A day later, that remains UEFA’s position and it is understood to have asked all of its host nations to do everything they can to make sure the tournament, which raises most of the money UEFA needs to finance its operations for four years, goes ahead.

Again, playing behind closed doors, but in front of the cameras, would be deeply disappointing for all concerned but probably better than trying to squeeze it into a summer slot in 2021 which frankly just does not exist, as UEFA already has a Nations League to complete, FIFA has World Cup qualifiers to fit in and, it hopes, a first ever 24-team Club World Cup, not to forget the African Cup of Nations and CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Turning Euro 2020 into Euro 2021 is not really an option, then, which is why UEFA is focusing its efforts on finding gaps in the various fixture lists over the next three months.

At its annual congress in Amsterdam last week, which seems like an age ago, UEFA said it has set up a working group with European Leagues, the body that represents the continent’s main domestic leagues, to reschedule games.

An obvious fix is to stop worrying about domestic games being scheduled on the same evening as European club games, which is ironically what was meant to happen with the Manchester City-Arsenal game this week until it was postponed, and pressure will grow on member associations with friendlies at the end of March to cancel those in order to make space for club games. England’s game against Italy on March 27 and Denmark on March 31, for example, look vulnerable, particularly as the Danes have just ramped up their coronavirus response by shutting all schools and universities.

Sixteen European nations, including Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, have competitive fixtures to play, as there are still four spots available at Euro 2020.

Whoever you ask the answer is the same: we must get these games played, somehow, somewhere.

Twenty-four hours on the noises from Nyon have not changed. Rumours have swirled all day about Euro 2020 being pushed back to 2021, with reports in France and the UK saying it was now inevitable. UEFA has refused to comment but has privately reminded people of just how much football is already lined up for next summer, most notably, as far as it is concerned, a Nations League Final in June and a Women’s Euros in July.

But there is absolutely no doubt that moving Euro 2020 is fast becoming the least worst option and on Thursday afternoon an email arrived from UEFA announcing a video conference (nobody is meeting in person at the moment) with its 55 member associations, the European Club Association, European Leagues and global players’ union FIFPro on Tuesday. On the agenda? “European football’s response to the outbreak (and) all domestic and European competitions, including Euro 2020”.

What if the problem is not a lack of time but a lack of players? 

Ah, this is where the last 2,000 words become almost redundant.

Many people The Athletic spoke to on Wednesday feared that all other conversations about how to deal with the outbreak would be superseded by the most straightforward question of all: what do we do when the players get it?

That question would appear to be no longer hypothetical with Arteta having tested positive at Arsenal and three unnamed Leicester City players having reported coronavirus symptoms and are now self-isolating. The number of clubs and players affected is only going to grow in the coming days as most experts believe the real number of cases in the UK, as opposed to the reported number, is into five figures now. This is because COVID-19 is believed to be highly contagious and people can have it without knowing they have it for up to two weeks.

The Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis was the first senior figure in British football to contract the illness, while Hannover 96 defender Timo Hubers was confirmed as German football’s first case early on Wednesday and then Juventus defender Rugani became Italian football’s first case on Wednesday evening.

As Germany, Italy and the UK are predicting that 70 to 80 per cent of their populations may get the illness, it is simply impossible that Hubers and Rugani will not be the first of hundreds before the pandemic is under control.

The good news is that Forest’s players and staff have all tested negative for coronavirus, although at the time of writing there was still no confirmation their Championship game against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday was on or off.

Marinakis also owns Greek champions Olympiakos and it was his presence at their Europa League game against Arsenal two weeks ago that led to the Londoners’ visit to Manchester being cancelled, as several Arsenal players are in self-isolation after meeting the Greek businessman.

But since that game, Arsenal have also played Portsmouth and West Ham, raising obvious concerns about contagion, considering it can take two weeks for a carrier to show any symptoms. Those fears will grow now that Arteta has tested positive too.

Those concerns — and you can add the clubs those teams have played and Forest’s recent opponents Middlesbrough and Millwall and the teams they have played et cetera et cetera — and it is easy to see how a panic can set in.

The Athletic understands several clubs have tried and failed to have their players tested as the public authorities are prioritising those who have come into direct contact with a carrier or visited a high-risk country, and you cannot have the tests done privately. There is no jumping the queue in a national crisis.

But the probabilities speak for themselves. Players are not only likely to get COVID-19, which means everyone they come into contact with will have to be quarantined for at least two weeks, some are likely to already have it.

Earlier on Wednesday, both the Professional Footballers’ Association and its global counterpart, FIFPro, put out similar statements calling for more support for their members.

“We ask that employers and competition organizers respect the wishes of players to take short-term precautionary measures including suspending training or competitions,” said FIFPro.

“We support the players and their associations who have requested a suspension or postponement of football activities in their countries or regions.”

So all we can do is wait and hope for the best? 

In a word, yes.

Until they are told otherwise, the leagues and governing bodies have been limited to forwarding on the latest public health advice to clubs: well-meaning but obvious stuff about not sharing water bottles or towels, making sure used tissues and bandages reach the bin and, like everyone else, washing hands regularly and properly.

The one gesture the Premier League and UEFA could make was to tell players to forget the pre-match handshake, which only led to mockery on social media when videos of goal celebrations and post-match handshakes were shared.

The Athletic, however, has learnt that many clubs have been more proactive. Some have carried out deep cleans of their offices and training grounds, and several have banned midweek visitors.

Furthermore, contact with journalists is being controlled. Some have said all interviews with players must be over the phone and others are asking journalists to complete forms that detail where they have been and whether they may have come into contact with a carrier.

There is evidence that fans are changing their behaviour, too. A Championship club discovered last weekend that the soap dispensers in their stadium’s toilets needed replacing at half-time. They usually last four games.

But that is what most of us have been reduced to: washing our hands and hoping.

When asked how many people would be allowed to attend a behind-closed-doors game, an EFL source admitted they had no idea and the league would have to draw up some new rules, as it had never been an issue before.

The Premier League was not able to add much more, although it is understood they are against any move to lift the ban on broadcasting games in the UK between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on Saturdays, so any move to televise games that fans have been kept out of will require government intervention. There is, however, a plan to let season-ticket holders stream games.

One thing is certain, though. Life will get back to normal eventually and football will bounce back, just as it did a century ago after the First World War and the Spanish flu, the last great pandemic to sweep through Europe. In fact, some are already thinking about turning this cloud into a silver lining.

“I think wealthy clubs are keeping an eye on developments at clubs less able to cope with stadium closures, here and abroad,” a football agent explains.

“They think they can capitalise on those who struggle to cope when the summer market opens.”

In a joint media conference with chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance at 5pm on Thursday, PM Boris Johnson confirmed the UK government is “considering banning major public events like sporting fixtures” but has not decided to do so yet.

He also said the government was now moving to the “delay” phase of its plan to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, which means overseas school trips will be banned from Friday and the elderly and ill have been told not to go on cruises. He did not, however, say he was ready to close offices, schools and universities.

The landscape appears to have shifted though with Arteta’s positive test. Friday morning will bring that emergency meeting of the Premier League and with it new questions for football.

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Has been suggestions Euros will be suspended and played next year...then the league carried on through the summer? Rumours though so find out from today's meeting. Cant go on as normal. We cant play...Arsenal cant play and we've had contact with other teams so they'll be tested now


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