The Premier League conundrum

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April 12, 2020 2:00 AM

With the pandemic wreaking a global havoc, football should be the last thing on anybody’s mind

Club Brugge players pose for a team group photo (FILE Photo: Reuters)Club Brugge players pose for a team group photo (FILE Photo: Reuters)

Can Liverpool be declared champions if the 2019-20 Premier League season is voided? The question has to be asked. Liverpool are the runaway leaders in the competition, with 82 points from 29 matches. They need just two more wins to secure the title. And yet, declaring them champions if the season is eventually voided could have legal implications.

It is now clear that Premier League will not resume in May. UK at the moment has more than 65,000 active coronavirus cases and close to 9,000 deaths. With the pandemic wreaking a global havoc, football should be the last thing on anybody’s mind. Then again, the Premier League is a billion pound business.

And it’s not only about money. If the ongoing season is not finished, English football faces “the danger of losing clubs and leagues”. As the Football Association chairman Greg Clarke said the other day: “Many communities could lose the clubs at their heart with little chance of resurrection.”

The problem is that the future offers extreme uncertainty. Nobody knows when the Covid-19 crisis will run its course. A June restart and playing the remaining matches behind closed doors is considered to be an option. That might suit the Premier League, for if the season is voided, revenue loss could be in excess of £1 billion. The English top-tier can temporarily do away with bums on seats, because it has a £9.2 billion broadcast right deal for the 2019-2022 cycle. But in the lower rungs, clubs are hugely dependent on gate receipts and closed doors matches don’t appear to be a viable option.

Voiding the Premier League season will require a 14-club consensus and even if the number is achieved, there’s a big possibility that others, who are not in favour of writing off the season, will sue. Also, in case of a write-off, the entire season will have to be deleted from the record books. It means Unai Emery still remains Arsenal manager and not Mikel Arteta. Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo haven’t signed for Manchester United. Jose Mourinho hasn’t replaced Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur… These are just a few examples.

Already some important people in football have spoken about why Liverpool cannot be declared champions if the season is voided. “If, and it is a huge if, the season cannot be completed then there is no way you can have a winner or loser,” former England captain Alan Shearer wrote in his column for The Sun. “If you cannot complete the fixtures then you cannot go handing out titles or consider relegating anybody. For Liverpool, it would be incredibly harsh,” he added.

Another option is to cancel the rest of the season and declare Liverpool champions based on current standings, a la the Belgian top-tier that has awarded the title to Club Brugge. With regards to the Premier League, though, the issue might not be so straightforward. To start with, five clubs —
Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal — are vying for a top-four finish and cancelling the season will deny them the chance to qualify for the Champions League next season. A club like United can face a revenue drop up to £67 million if they fail to qualify for the Champions League.

Then, at the bottom half, six clubs — Brighton, West Ham, Watford, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich City — are locked in a relegation scrap. If the season is cancelled, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich City will be relegated based on their current standings. Now, Bournemouth are on 27 points at the moment, on a par with Watford and West Ham, points-wise, who are placed 17th and 16th respectively because of their better goal difference. With nine games to go, Bournemouth have enough opportunity to survive. The same applies to Aston Villa and Norwich City also, as both can still get out of the relegation zone.

Cancelling the top-tier will have a knock-on effect, as leagues lower down the order will have to be cancelled as well. With regards to the Championship, which has Leeds United leading the table with 71 points followed by West Bromwich Albion on 70, they will directly come to the top-tier and will be eligible for central payments that include broadcast revenue share, along with facility fees, merit payment and central commercial. At the same time, the relegated clubs from the Premier League will miss out on that. Also, if the authorities pick Fulham, based on their current standings, as the third team from the Championship to be promoted to the top rung, then the playoff format will have to be sacrificed. Once again, the whole thing could invite litigation.

As for now, English football will wait. A section doesn’t even mind taking the season deep into the autumn if that guarantees completion. Fifa has allowed clubs to extend player contracts until the end of the season, whenever that happens. The counter argument is that an indefinite wait is not a logical solution, for that will gravely disturb future seasons. The world’s most popular football league at the moment is caught in a quagmire.

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