As of February just about every league in Europe had been impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic either by way of fixture cancellation or match protocol.
By May 2020 the depth of the crisis was highlighted when it was estimated that more than 300,000 people have died as a result of the virus worldwide.
In the United Kingdom alone an incredible 34,000 people of various ages have died due to or in part due to the disease that develops from the virus. Those figures alone give some indication of a condition that has the ability to not only destroy lives and devastate families but also impact sporting activities.
Wider, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation and/or postponement of major sporting events worldwide, including the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and the UEFA 2020 European Championships both of which have moved to 2021.
In Scotland all football has been suspended until at least Wednesday June 10 with Celtic crowned Scottish Champions.
But while the death totals are bleak if you analyse the data the rate of recovery from this virus is overwhelmingly in favour of it being beatable. We remember and look back sadly at those who have died but the facts are that most people who are infected recover and go onto live full lives.
Moreover there is also a need to question the extent to which footballers (whether elite footballers or children under 18 years) are susceptible to this disease being fatal.
AIDS never killed all of us, neither has cancer or typhoid or cholera. An estimated 38.3% of people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime.
COVID19 will be beaten and football will resume one day – the fans will be back and so will the players.
The media are very good at highlighting the bad things in our lives. Likewise, scientists at top University’s cannot make a living without using a methodology to predict the ‘next wave of the virus’.
Optimism and more importantly planning must kick in now in Scotland if football is to resume and soon. If it is happening elsewhere it should be happening here in our country – Scotland.
Make no mistake, whatever the political rhetoric out of Holyrood and whatever indecisive minuted zoom call talk comes out of Hampden and its disjointed temporary ill flung together committees, if football people in Scotland see the English game progressing and moving back to normal football participants north of the border whether players or fans will ask the key question – why is this not happening here?
The object of this paper is to provide an overview as to what is occuring across league set ups in Europe. An assessment is made what nations are doing in terms of football getting back to being a part of everyday life.
*The nations highlighted are Germany, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Norway, Sweden and Ireland with information correct as of 18 March.
National Association: SFA
Scottish football announced the suspension of all levels of football on Friday 13th March 2020. Training has not resumed at any level whether professional or non professional. A secondary advisory group recommended that football should be suspended until June 10th 2020.
Mens SPFL: Season 2019-20 was abandoned and Celtic were crowned SPL champions. Hearts have been relegated.
Womens SWPL: Football suspended as at 13th March with only 1 league fixture played.
Youth, Amateur (Men): Campaigns abandoned across regions and/or declared null and void.
Youth, Non Professional (Girls): Season suspended with only 1 game played. No decisions have been made at at 18th May as to the resumption of play (SWPL) or next season (SPFL) as well as regional minor leagues.
In response to the suspension of football a joint response group has been mobilised from where decisions about the resumption of play for all levels will be made. In addition a variety of committees meet virtually discussing the situation across a section of themes including grassroots football and operations.
National Federation: DFB
Normal player training (at professional level) resumed on May 6th with players paying attention to social distancing rules and maximum sized groups.
A lengthy paged document was developed by DFB and DFL and this was presented to Chancellor Merkel and the individual German federal states by way of rule guidance towards allowing play to resume. In view of this document Chancellor Merkel allowed football to resume on 16th May.
The initial recommendation (based on the pressing need for elite football to return) was that Ghost Games or Geisterspiele should occur. Learnings from these games would be used as a model for guidance for other leagues and areas of football in Germany.
Across Germany the 21 national associations split across Federal States currently provide general information to participants on the rules related to the corona crisis. Developments towards resuming gaming operations are updated on their websites so teams have a central hub which to refer.
Elite football clubs (Bundesliga I / II) have been advised that the continuation of games should only be carried out in accordance with the moving guidance of a task force for sports medicine and special game operations developed by the DFB and DFL.
Mens Football – Bundesliga 1 and 2
Bundesliga 1 and 2 resumed on 16th May with the wider agreement and acknowledgement to restart play with ‘an acceptable level of medical risk’. The current plan is that the league season will finish by June 30th 2020. The hope is that this will free up around 300 million euros ($323 million) for clubs in television money.
Up to 213 people – players, coaches, officials, stewards and media – are to be allowed into the huge Bundesliga stadiums for each match. Players and backroom staff will be tested before and after games to reduce the risk of spreading infection.
The celebration of goals with colleagues is discouraged but does still occur. Noted example was Robert Lewandowski kissing his teammate after an FC Bayern goal versus FC. Union Berlin on Monday.
Numerous players (both current and retired) have made comment that risk of death from COVID19 to athletic fully fit professional football players is small to nil, in particular see comments by Jens Lehmann.
According to DFL calculations, around 22,000 tests, for players and club staff, will be needed to complete the league season.
DFB Pokal (Cup)
The German Cup semi-finals between Bayern Munich vs. Eintracht Frankfurt and Saarbrucken vs. Bayer Leverkusen will be played on June 9 and 10. The Cup final meanwhile will be played on 4th July without fans.
The Frauen Bundesliga
The top tier of women’s football in Germany, can resume as early as May 29th. It has six rounds of matches to complete, plus two catch-up games.
Under new proposals, the league would continue on May 29, with the season finale scheduled for June 28. The DFB Pokal Frauen, the country’s main national women’s cup competition, will continue with its quarter-finals on June 3 with the semi-finals on June 10/11, and the final in Cologne on July 4.
Other Minor German leagues, Bundesliga 3 / Grassroots
Many leagues have been cancelled or declared Null and Void. There is a desire to resume and conclude Bundesliga 3.
Further down the football ladder there is now a large emphasis on Stay@home leagues, and Stay@home training regimes via online portals as well as @online coaching seminars. However what is occuring at elite level (both from a data and operational perspective) is being used as a marker for the lower levels of the game.
National Association: KNVB
On 24th April the KNVB made the decision to cancel both top tiers of Dutch football the Eredivisie and Eerste Divisie in response to the coronavirus crisis with elite football cancelled until 1st September. However the KNVB did nominate clubs for UEFA competition which is scheduled to resume in August. Therefore it is expected elite football clubs will return to training soon.
For the first time since 1944-45, the Dutch top flight would not have a champion and there would be no elite football relegation or promotion either from the 18-team divisions. The KNVB decision has however been met with outrage, legal ramifications and even disgust. The anger comes particularly from clubs in the second tier Eerste Divisie who have been denied promotion while clubs like Ajax have been ‘rewarded’ with a Champions League place despite no winner of the Eredivisie.
Cancelled season with no winner.
Despite a decision being made to cancel elite football following a contraversial vote, the Dutch governmental cabinet under Mark Rutte (Prime Minister) decided that youth football (12-18 years) in the Netherlands could restart training again from April 29 and seniors (Amatuers) from May 11. The KNVB has drawn up and published clear protocols for all sports associations to follow.
This protocol contains the practical ‘corona’ protocol highlighting football rules for safe and responsible sports activities to start up at lower levels.
National Association: DBU
Mens Danish Superliga
The league’s resumption will be accompanied by a strict health protocol, which still requires government approval and is being developed similar to how things were done in Germany.
The clubs in Gjensidige Kvindeliga can start full team training, after DBU and the Kvivedivisionsforeningen made a training protocol ready. In the interests of equality on Saturday, May 9, the Ministry of Culture announced that Gjensidige Women’s League can open under the same guidelines as the Mens Super League and the NordicBet League (the mens football league tier 1 and 2).
Since then, the DBU and the Women’s Division Association have worked closely together to draw up protocols for both training and tournament matches for mens, womens, boys and girls football.
In principle, in Denmark, there are no restrictions on the content of the training itself other than minimising contact and training in smaller groups.
The DBU (Danish Football Association) have published the Corona rules of the football which are located on the national DBU website and available for all football participants to see.
Spitting is disallowed, groups are set at a maximum number for training and hygiene is recommended whether for training football’s or equipment.
National Assoication: OFB
All men’s competitions have been impacted, and, with the exception of the two divisions of the Bundesliga and the UNIQA ÖFB Cup no other competition will resume. All minor league state association football competition for the 2019-20 season have been cancelled.
In the area of women’s football, all competitions including the Planet Pure Frauen Women Bundesliga and the SPORT.LAND.NÖ Women Cup are cancelled, as well as youth football.
AS report that matches in the Austrian Bundesliga league will resume on Tuesday 2 June, holding games every three days to clear the backlog built up during the coronavirus lockdown.
Before this the Austrian cup final will occur on 29th May which is a match between SC Austria Lustenau v RB Salzburg in Klagenfurt Wörthersee Stadion which is the Austrian region of Corinthia.
The OFB have stated that the challenges of COVID remain paramount, and both organisational and financial considerations have to be balanced with strict protocol ONLY followed for elite men’s football. However, matches without fans are noted as an emergency plan ONLY and not in any way a future solution for football.
NORWAY – ELITESERIEN
National Association: NFF
The NFF have released a very detailed guidance protocol for football clubs.
Top elite level football will be used as pilot for the resumption of all football in Norway. The Norwegian Eliteserien season was scheduled to begin on 4th April, but due to the pandemic the opening games of the season were delayed, first until 2nd May then further delayed until late May.
A phased pilot approach is being followed to reintroduce football:
Phase 1: Men’s Elite Series, training to start no earlier than May 11, fixture start no earlier than June 16.
Phase 2: Women’s – training and match start four weeks later than for the Elite series. Thus, the start-up training for Phase 2 has been postponed to 25 May.
Start of matches in the Top Series and the OBOS league are scheduled for the first week in July.
Third Phase: (All other Norwegian leagues) the start of several leagues in a third phase is conditional on the need for the comprehensive infection control measures and the strict control that also applies to the first and second phases being used for lower league football.
National Association: SvFF
Sweden has taken a different approach to most of the rest of the world when it comes to coronavirus, allowing schools, restaurants and shops to stay open, with the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, urging people to behave “as adults”.
While Sweden has had a higher rate of death than Norway (by some way) the top two leagues in Sweden – Allsvenskan and Superettan – have announced that they hope to get their season’s up and running on 14th June with crowds in the stadia.
A SvFF crisis management team has developed guidelines and recommendations in support of associations, district associations and other interested parties with the national football association website showing clear leadership to publicise these guidelines.
The start of the OBOS Damallsvenskan is now noted as June 27-28. A condition for the start of the series to be considered is a formal message from the Swedish Public Health Authority about restarting elite football.
The decision to postpone the start of the Damallsvenskan season until June 27-28 is in line with the wishes that were communicated from Elitfotboll Dam (EFD) where a majority of the participating associations and teams are noted a need for at least three weeks preparation time before the start of the fixtures.
Emphasis is on elite series football resuming successfully before the resumption of competitive youth or amatuer football leagues.
National Association: FAI
A pathway for a safer return to football for the SSE Airtricity League, Women’s National League, adult amateur and underage football along with all other FAI affiliates is in progress.
The emphasis is on an evidence based medical solution being developed allowing football to resume under directorship of the FAI medical team.
The model according to the FAI will be consultative and advisory in tone rather than dictorial.
There is an acknowledgment that football will have to return with acceptable risk levels. Contact levels in game play football are noted as ‘minimal’ but the case for a return to play is in progress.
Training will resume on Monday 8th June for an elite group of players from Dundalk, Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City – a pilot group ONLY at first.
Results and reports will be developed from that group reporting upwards to Dublin Govt (return to sport programmes and HSE) and the FAI executive steering committee.
Information as to an approach is also being built into the Irish game paying reference to generic ‘Corona football’ guidelines being used across UEFA members, Belgian Leagues, the Bundesliga and the English football model.
This pilot will build a protocol of what it is like to train and play football in a ‘social distancing manner’ at all levels of Irish football. From this a defined science based methodology will be rolled out across all other levels of football in Ireland and used for guidance purposes towards a resumption of football safely.
*Updated 20th May