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?
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.