Swiss soccer league takes congested season to last-day drama

GENEVA (AP) — About 90 minutes before UEFA’s midnight deadline on Aug. 3 to enter clubs in the next Champions League, Switzerland will be the last pandemic-delayed European league to complete its 2019-20 season.

The Swiss league will have needed all those available days to fulfill its program — after multiple positive tests for COVID-19 at one of its 10 clubs — and maybe even to find a champion.

“We are back on track,” league CEO Claudius Schaefer said Tuesday, acknowledging the congested run-in is not ideal amid criticism from clubs which must play five times in 13 days. “From the sport side, it’s really interesting and we have really good matches.”

Title contenders Young Boys and St. Gallen kick off at 8:30 p.m. on the final Monday for what could be a decisive match. Defending champion Young Boys leads by two points ahead of its last four games in 12 days.

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The season was to end on Aug. 2 until the positive tests at Zurich this month forced its home game against Sion to be postponed.

Fitting in that extra game on Tuesday pushed back the last two rounds for all teams to complete a league season that will have taken 54 weeks.

“Scandal,” Sion midfielder Pajtim Kasami said of the league on his Twitter account last week.

Faced with a hard deadline from UEFA to enter teams in the next Champions League and Europa League, the Swiss league could not extend its season.

“We thought we’d find a way with UEFA but we could not,” Schaefer said of an agreement European soccer officials struck amid the unprecedented disruption.

UEFA’s one-year postponement of the European Championship cleared June and July for national leagues to finish their seasons and fulfill broadcasting contracts — a key move to stabilize the soccer economy.

In return, UEFA needed August to complete its own men’s club competitions by Aug. 23 and know which teams are entering next season’s editions. Swiss teams start Aug. 25 in the qualifying rounds.

The situation was complicated in Switzerland by postponing games in February, with 13 rounds left, after a federal ruling to limit mass gatherings.

Days later, when UEFA member federations met in Amsterdam, Switzerland took the floor as the first European league to shut down and warned of the looming crisis.

“Due to the coronavirus we are in a situation that could shake, for a part of us, our professional football to its foundations,” said Swiss soccer president Dominique Blanc, who would later test positive for COVID-19.

Swiss soccer still faces economic challenges, with clubs relying on match day sales for up to 45% of their pre-pandemic revenue, Schaefer said.

Up to 1,000 people can now be in the stadium for league games, with clubs deciding how to allocate tickets to fans.

Schaefer wondered if face masks will be mandatory for fans at future games to help restore confidence.

“Even if we have a vaccine I don’t know if you would have 30,000 in the stadium in Bern, or if people are afraid to come,” Schaefer said.

So far, public health guidance does not require testing on players who do not show symptoms.

Schaefer said that will be reassessed before next season starts on Sept. 11.

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