Ligue 1’s 2019-20 season is over. That’s the decision from French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe, who announced in parliament on Tuesday that, given the current state of the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that we’re not going to beat this thing anytime soon, “the big sporting affairs cannot occur before September.” Ligue 1 typically begins in early August, so in addition to this season concluding prematurely, the next one is going to start late. (And nobody would be surprised, given the fluidity of the situation, if it starts even later than September.)
Ligue 1 is the first big European league to fully give up on completing even some truncated version of their season, and it was a decision made by the French government rather than the bureaucrats who run the sport, but we can expect that Ligue 1’s closure might give several other leagues—or failing that, federal governments—permission to follow suit. That seems to be the way things work at the moment. For instance, California installed a shelter-in-place order on March 19th, and soon afterward New York, Illinois, and a raft of blue states had shelter-in-place orders too. (It took Republican governors a little longer, but the majority of them have since come around as well.) The NBA suspended its season on March 11th and within a few days, the NCAA tournament was cancelled and MLB said they were indefinitely postponing opening day. Ligue 1 shutting down until at least September is going to force folks in government and executive suites to answer some questions as to whether or not they’re thinking about waving the white flag too.
This is a modest yet positive development in the profit vs. public health war that’s been transpiring over the past few months. Politicians and CEOs are currently arguing strenuously about the precise definition of an essential industry, but sports leagues surely don’t qualify. It would be spirit-salving for fans and good for the balance sheets if we could watch some games, but we don’t need to, and anybody piping up on behalf of nonessential interests right now deserves to be shouted down. This doesn’t mean that the EPL should announce that they’re cancelling their remaining fixtures, or that the Spanish government should step in and nix La Liga, but people in decision-making positions should start seriously considering that possibility, and rather than wasting all their energy trying to salvage lost TV and ticket money—or staging training sessions during a lockdown (that’s you, Arsenal)—they can start parsing next season’s challenging logistics.
Because if we’re done playing soccer for 2019-20, and if the 2020-21 calendar is going to be at least slightly screwed up too, there’s a lot of stuff to figure out. Domestic cups and titles are largely meaningless—if Serie A crowned Juventus tomorrow, nobody would take it too seriously—but more crucially, league table position determines Champions League and Europa League places, and it’s difficult to say how qualification should function in this novel circumstance, given that everyone has played an unequal schedule and there are, in every league, somewhere around 21 points left to be decided for each team.
UEFA is internally discussing using their own coefficient model—basically a cumulative score each team gets based on the quality of the competitions they play in and how well they’ve performed over the past few seasons—to pick CL and EL participants for 2020-21. This is reasonable or outrageous depending on your rooting interests and abstract ideas about fairness. It’s not fair, for instance, that Atlético Madrid, who are currently one point short of a Champions League spot, to miss out on a tournament they typically qualify for comfortably with so many matches still on the docket, but at the same time, it’s unfair to tell Real Sociedad, who have marginally outperformed Atleti over seven months of action, that they’re going to be relegated to the Europa League just because this particular season is weird.
Maybe UEFA should let Real Sociedad in and then give Atleti a special invitation. Maybe they’ll arrive at some framing that makes it seem justified to inform one of those clubs that they’re simply out of luck. This is the big concern because the Champions League is the big tournament, but there’s a ton of these conundrums that are going to need to be dealt with at the club, league, trans-European, and even at, Maradona help us, the FIFA-governed global level. How do the transfer market and Financial Fair Play restrictions function when revenues have crashed? How do clubs get players that they buy in the transfer market in for medical evaluations? Most lower leagues promote a team or two based on an end-of-season playoff—how are they going to decide who gets promoted this year? Will anyone be relegated? When will fans be allowed to attend games again? If the EPL, La Liga, and the rest kick off in, let’s say, November, are they going to need to play fewer games or use a condensed fixture list? Because there’s very little runway to allow the normal schedule to run into the summer: the Euros are tentatively slated to begin on June 11th, 2021.
Answering these questions will be hard work, and especially taxing for administrators who understand their jobs to primarily involve taking afternoon gin naps at their desks and shaking hands with Andrea Pirlo. It could take between now and July, now and September, to properly sort out the how and why of what happens next year. That’s mental labor that can start immediately. It’s highly dubious that we’re going to see more 2019-20 action. La Liga, the Champions League, the Bundesliga—it’s all likely kaputt, because we just don’t need sports at the moment; getting it up and running again isn’t worth the trouble when we have so many other more pressing concerns. But there is no good reason why leagues can’t hit the ground running whenever they get the all-clear. The sooner the planning starts, the more enjoyable the soccer will be upon its return. Only then can sports once again heal us in the small but meaningful ways we’re yearning for now.