By Christophe Jost
As we all now know, football in Europe has one huge of a problem with the Covid-19 pandemic Or I perhaps I should say, several linked problems :
- not being able to play in front of crowds
- not being able, so far, to finish the season
- not being able to guarantee that players/staff from one team won’t contaminate players from the other
- not being able to guarantee that referees or other actors do not contaminate players or the other way around
The consequences, if we bring the issue back to its basics, are that football is running out of money and looking straight into the face of its total demise.
In Europe, the Bundesliga is the one league that, from what I have read, seems to have done the best job at preparing for life after lockdown.
And it has been trying to address the issues that will arise if small clubs were to go bust: rich clubs will still have their football pitches, but no team to play against…
The Premier League, however, has one issue that is different then most, if not all, other European leagues: most of its revenue comes from TV rights.
In other leagues, matchday revenues are often more important than TV rights, or TV rights revenue at least do not dominate the clubs’ total income. Thus in much of Europe playing ghost games means salaries need be paid in full, but the revenue from the games is insufficient to cover the cost, simply because matchday revenue is so important.
But let’s look at the Premier League which is, of course, the league we are primarily interested in. It is now an accepted fact that playing ghost games is the only solution certainly for the time being, and maybe across part or all of next season.
One could argue that a stadium of 60,000 could still host maybe 10,000 keeping their distances…but frankly do you believe people would queue outside the Emirates two metres apart, would queue for food or drink two metres apart, would queue for the toilet facilities two metres apart, would not move from their allotted seat to be closer to their friends during the game? If you’ve been to a match at Arsenal Stadium, you’ll know that’s not possible, even with just 10,000 there.
So apart from VIP suites…games will not happen in a crowded environment. So ghost games are going to be the new normal.
But even then there are problems, such as…
– how to organise social distancing inside a stadium
– how to make sure players, staff, referees are healthy when entering the stadium
– how to keep all those involved healthy in-between games
– how to avoid fans coming to the stadium anyway
– how to play 10 championship matchdays before the end of June 2020
And that’s just for starters.
But now, an alternative scenario is being talked up. Choose a few stadia across England, play three games a day on each, keep teams under lockdown for the time necessary to play all games and the issue is solved.
Effectively, play the season to its conclusion, “World Cup” style.
But doing that in England would require a huge organisation in terms of police presence – stadia would have to be cut-off from the rest of society, while there would be the need to test a large number of people very often… And that is before thinking about the human management of keeping players ‘under lock and key’ – including some who were being locked in, in their own home town.
Such a proposal has been discussed in Germany and Spain as well, and indeed in other countries – while some countries have simply cancelled the end of the season.
But there is an alternative solution exists and it is now being mentioned… although the mainstream media are as ever a little way behind (just as they were with the issues surrounding Saudi Arabia’s buying of Newcastle and the implications of their ownership of BeoutQ).
Whether it applies to the Premier League, or some other national championship or competition (like the FA Cup or a European cup), it has its challenges, but it provides many solutions as well.
Instead of organising ghost games across a limited time sequence in a few cities across England, this approach involves switching the games to a European country that could host the whole event in the way World Cup Finals are organised, and in so doing avoid many problems the same format would raise in England.
This country being talked up is the Republic of Cyprus. It has one million inhabitants, 810 Covid19 cases, 14 fatalities, (as per the JHU Resources Centre, Sunday April 26th). Thus one thing stands out: they have managed the crisis far better than many other European countries.
Cyprus is an island state, part of the EU. It has an English past, (they even drive on the left!), it is democratic, has two football leagues and is a known tourist destination to many Britons.
And once you take spectators out of the equation, there is no more need for giant stadia. I even wonder if playing at Wembley in front of empty seats is not more disturbing then doing it in small National League stadium.
Cyprus has small stadia. Setting up six or nine of them for TV broadcasting does seem like an achievable proposal. What’s more it is an island state, so entering the country is not as easy as taking the train or the car from London to Liverpool or the tube from Islington to West Ham.
Cyprus has an excellent hotel infrastructure. Hosting 20 teams as well as staff, and hosting referees and broadcasting crews ought to be absolutely no problem at all.
Finding training grounds ought to be possible as well, after all there are football leagues in Cyprus. They may not be as high tech as some in England, but there as well, it ought to be possible.
And teams might find it easier and more comfortable to be under lockdown in the Cyprus climate than in the English spring.
Major cities in the Republic of Cyprus are all within more or less one hour’s drive of each other, if not less. So going from hotel to stadium to play games or train, is another issue that looks like it could be resolved.
Internet connections are good, broadcasting the games would thus be no problem. And as it is a given that most interviews will be held remotely for a long time, so distance is not an issue anymore.
Nine stadia (or should I say pitches) would mean that each matchday could be played over three days, with three games each day. Playing two games a week, would thus enable the season to be completed within five to six weeks. The FA Cup would take a couple of weeks.
Moving the players to the Republic of Cyprus is not a big issue; there are two international airports, approximately four hours away from England, which are built for the busy tourist seasons, so can easily cope with footballers arriving from England.
Considering the toll the pandemic is going to take on Cyprus, we are convinced that discussions with the Republic of Cyprus authorities, as well as with the Cyprus Football Association ought to be possible. After all, each party would solve many of the problems the other has. Cyprus is losing its tourist income, England has lost its Premier League. This is what one could call a win-win situation.
And if this is too late for the Premier League, it could well be an option for other national or European competitions.
So delocalising the Premier League 2019-2020 championship to a country like the Republic of Cyprus would tick many boxes and may therefore be a solution worth looking at.
And do remember : this is not over yet. Be careful, stay safe and don’t listen to people peddling miracle cures… (especially Presidents).
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