GENEVA (AP) — Star players isolated from their teams. Games postponed or moved to neutral venues. Clubs at financial risk without fans in their stadiums.
The coronavirus pandemic still figures to be soccer’s toughest opponent across Europe this season as England and Spain this weekend lead a wave of national leagues beginning a tightly packed schedule.
After a 2019-20 domestic season that stretched beyond one year in some countries, barely more than eight months are now free for the 38-game leagues. In late-May, UEFA takes over the fixture calendar for club competition finals and the delayed 2020 European Championship.
Most leagues across Europe defied doubts in the spring to emerge from a three-month shutdown and complete their seasons safely — albeit in empty stadiums that upended the soccer economy.
Now they must do it again while working with public authorities even more closely to bring fans back to games.
“They have understood that it is not over yet,” said Jacco Swart, managing director of the 29-nation European Leagues network. “They have to struggle and battle for this every day.”
“The big question is when are we going back to normal and what is going to be the definition of normal by then?” the official from the Netherlands said in an interview.
The unpredictability of season ahead can already be seen in leagues that have kicked off.
Paris Saint-Germain makes a late start to its domestic title defense Thursday without a slew of star players, including Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, who tested positive for COVID-19. PSG’s opener was delayed nearly two weeks to let players rest after their loss in the Champions League final last month.
The Scottish standings are disjointed with Celtic and Aberdeen already two games behind schedule. The city of Aberdeen was locked down in August by public authorities when a local spike in infections was linked to nightlife. Several Aberdeen players who broke the rules were criticized by lawmakers.
Swart said some teams could play games in neutral cities because of local lockdowns.
Also, he suggested, “new kickoff times, maybe new match days, playing domestic league matches on days which have not been (used) regularly until now, can be foreseen.”
The biggest upheaval to league programs and standings could arise if a club enters bankruptcy, drops out and its results are wiped from the record.
“In today’s situation, not only within football but within the entire economy, it would be unrealistic to say that things like that could not happen,” Swart acknowledged.
European club leaders have warned of a collective revenue shortfall of 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion) combined in 2020 and 2021. Hundreds of millions of dollars in expected income is being rebated to broadcasters for disrupted schedules last season.
With so many clubs in smaller leagues relying on cash from matchday ticket and hospitality sales, the top focus is bringing back some fans.
“Everyone is on the same page that we have one objective,” Swart said. “Football is becoming a real event again when we have the fans (in) the stands.”
Fans will return in many countries within strict limits such as up to two-thirds of stadium capacity in October, ahead of a predicted winter rise in infections.
“Hopefully, but I am not sure if that’s realistic, by the end of this season we can have full capacity again,” Swart said.
With its special place in European culture, soccer has shown “a very good example for the entire society that we can deal, and we have to deal, with the new circumstances,” he said.
Turkey and the Netherlands also kick off their seasons this weekend, followed a week later by leagues in Germany, Italy and Portugal.
The unscripted drama at the core of soccer’s appeal will likely be matched off the field by the pandemic’s unpredictability.
“We know one thing for sure,” Swart said. “What is the situation today will not be the situation in a couple of months’ time.”
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