How can football cope with the Coronavirus outbreak?

Like every industry across the world, football has been impacted greatly by the Coronavirus outbreak, bringing the global game to a nearly complete standstill.

While the pitches have fallen silent, activity has raged
behind the scenes as contingency plans, cancellations and contract talks have
gone into overdrive.

International tournaments like the
European Championships
and Copa America have been postponed until 2021,
while federations across the world wrestle with the best way to continue once
the pandemic is under control.

Should the seasons that were in process be continued? Or is
it best to annul them and start again? Try telling that to fans of Liverpool,
on the cusp of a first league title in 30 years, or supporters of Atalanta, the
Serie A club wowing Europe with their Champions League progress.

Aside from sporting glory, thorny issues of soon-to-expire
player contracts, wage deferrals and other unforeseen legal issues have further
muddied the waters. How will football’s lawmakers handle the scenario?

What are
the problems football faces?

  • Thousands of players’ contracts will expire on
    June 30th, but seasons across Europe and the wider world are looking
    to resume action after this date.
  • High-earning players in the UK have been put
    under pressure by government officials to contribute to charitable causes
    through wage deferrals.
  • Voiding seasons opens up the door to lawsuits
    from clubs that miss out on titles or promotion to higher leagues and the
    financial rewards that would come with it.
  • Broadcast deals are impossible to honour at this
    current time and would also go unfulfilled were seasons to be ended early.

Are
solutions in place?

Football’s global governing body FIFA has issued guidelines
for clubs regarding player contracts, however individual circumstances could
still see the involvement of lawyers as players who have missed out on
lucrative paydays seek reimbursement.

Global
law firm Withers breaks down FIFA’s guidelines
thus: “While recognising
that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all football competitions
are being suspended worldwide, and thus the current football season will not
end as initially planned, the COVID-19 Guidelines propose that players’
employment contracts are extended until such time in which the football season
will actually end.

“In addition, the COVID-19 Guidelines point out that
similar principles would apply to employment agreements due to begin at the
beginning of the next new football season. Therefore, the relevant employment
agreements will enter into force whenever the next football season will
actually commence.”

However, that does not make the matter closed. The legality
of enforcing such a stay on players has been questioned by lawyers.

John
Mehrzad QC writes
that FIFA’s solution “is too simplistic”, adding: “By
suggesting the parties intended their contracts to continue until the end of
any season, FIFA interprets player contracts in a way that is impermissible
under English law; player contracts in England are expressly drafted to
terminate on a date – 30 June – not on an event, such as the end of the season.”

How will
football resume?

Dates for the resumption of sporting action have been mooted
and swiftly dropped as containing the virus remains the priority.

Belgium has declared its top-level season finished with one
round of regular-season matches to play, but this remains an isolated decision
thus far.  Scotland’s authorities have
considered similar, but a vote
put to teams has descended into chaos
.

Meanwhile, in leagues that do resume their current seasons,
it seems almost certain that action will return to the pitch before fans do to
the stadium.

This has opened up concerns about the viability of playing
in the lower leagues, with England’s third and fourth-tier clubs considering
whether to abandon the campaign, rather than make huge financial losses without
gate receipts.

The issues facing football remain wide-ranging and clarity
seems unlikely at this time, with the Coronavirus still wreaking havoc in our
communities.

While it is reasonable to remain confident that the
‘beautiful game’ will return, it remains highly uncertain about the form it
will take when it does.

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