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Opinion: Premier League’s 50 days of madness is a reckless risk

  • April 26, 2020

Three of Europe’s top football leagues whose responses to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic couldn’t be more different.

The Dutch Eredivise season was declared null and void on Thursday, ending without champions, relegation or promotion between the top two tiers. Champions League and Europa League spots will be allocated based on the current standings, in accordance with the Dutch government’s decision to ban all mass gatherings until September 1.

The English Premier League sees things differently. According to a report in the Times, it has drawn up plans for the season to restart on June 8, with the view to completing the remaining 92 games in a 50-day spell that ends on July 27. Up to 400 people including players and coaches, medical staff, security and the media would be permitted at each game.

While the Dutch Football Association, KNVB, were instructed that this would represent too much of a risk to public health in the Netherlands, the Premier League is motoring ahead unperturbed. This comes at a time when people of all ages are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day in the UK, if you include the unreported care home figures. As of Thursday, a pitiful 13,000 people a day were being tested in the UK, health professionals are still struggling to acquire personal protective equipment, and the UK’s response has been condemned internationally for being late and inadequate. This is not a time to be considering playing football.

Ajax and AZ Alkmaar were leading the Eredivisie, but neither will be Dutch champions this year.

The picture is somewhat different in Germany, where vast numbers of the world’s supplies of high-quality test kits are produced, and the testing rate has accelerated to around 120,000 a day – world-leading figures. While Chancellor Angela Merkel has cautioned against a hasty awakening out of lockdown, the German government can afford to allow sports to return in a limited form as the testing infrasture is far more advanced. Even that amounts to a calculated risk but it’s not a reckless one, and the Bundesliga’s return behind closed doors will help usher some clubs back from the economic abyss.

In England, the absence of the game itself has revealed a moral wasteland that we’ve long known exists. Newcastle, the 19th richest club in the world according to Deloitte’s 2019 Money League rankings, continue to make use of a government scheme to pay its staff, while the even richer Liverpool and Tottenham reversed such a decision after severe criticism.

In the Netherlands, its top players joined the KNVB and ING to create a solidarity fund to the value of €11 million to help support clubs and players in the lower echelons in recognition of the importance of the grassroots level of the game. Similar initiatives have been seen in Germany too.

“Public health always comes first,” former Ajax and Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar told the Ajax website. “It’s not just a football problem here given what the coronavirus is doing to society. Nonetheless, the professional football committee is aware that the decision is going to cause great disappointment for some.”

The Premier League was halted on March 13, but wants to return on June 8.

The Ajax chief executive added: “It is a pity that you are not declared champion, but in this situation that may be understandable. There are more important things at the moment than football.”

The KNVB are likely to be entangled in the legal implications of this for years. SC Cambuur and De Graafschap were in pole position to secure promotion to the top division and Cambuur’s coach, Henk de Jong, went as far as describing it as “the biggest disgrace in the history of Dutch sports”. Maybe someone should tell him that 4,500 Dutch people have died from this virus and that he really isn’t that important.

Financial losses are polluting collective judgement in England. England’s richest and most successful club, Manchester United, will clock up TV, matchday and commercial losses of over €120m during the crisis, according to research by Sporting Intelligence.

However, the failure to acknowledge that super-rich clubs like Manchester United can not only absorb that kind of hit, but still have plenty in reserve to support the clubs without such deep pockets is what really sets English football apart in this crisis. In the absence of TV revenue, it is a time for the rich to care for the poor. KNVB’s president has warned the Premier League to be realistic.

DW’s Michael da Silva

“The UK will hold on to a sliver of hope as long as it is there, but in reality the chances of completing the Premier League season are slim,” Just Spee said. “The English season will need a number of weeks to complete and I doubt there will be enough time. Seeing what is happening with things getting postponed week by week it is probably not realistic.”

The Belgian league is expected to follow its neighbor’s example in the coming days, ratifying a decision to end its league early. While the decision to play football again in Germany is only possible thanks to its impressive planning and response to this pandemic, each country must make a decision based on its circumstances. The UK should look to the Netherlands for inspiration.

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