We’re no closer to knowing when soccer might return to action given the global reaction to slowing the coronavirus outbreak, but there’s still a lot happening in the broader soccer world. Gab Marcotti reacts to the main talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
European leagues free to use common sense around how to end the 2019-20 season
Memo to decision-makers around Europe’s top leagues: the rules and bylaws that govern the game weren’t handed down by a higher being. They were made by people who didn’t (and couldn’t) envision anything like the current pandemic-induced shutdown. That said, because they are man-made, there’s nothing wrong in rewriting them if it suits the common good, and UEFA’s executive committee statement last Thursday took a general step in that direction.
There’s an “ideal scenario” in which the public health situation improves, every top-flight fixture gets played and they even squeeze in the remainder of the 2019-20 Europa League and Champions League seasons by August. Great. That’s the goal. Fingers crossed. Then there’s the uncomfortable reality: what to do if you can’t finish.
UEFA says the season can only be terminated early under two circumstances. One is if governments prohibit sporting activity until a certain date and you simply run out of time to end this season and start the next one. (They don’t specify a start date for next season, but according to multiple sources, they want 2020-21 to start in September at the latest — pandemic permitting, of course.) The other is if there are “insurmountable economic problems” that make finishing the season “impossible” because it would jeopardize the long-term financial stability of clubs.
The first scenario is self-explanatory. The second is a catchall that can really be extended to everyone, if necessary, but is meant primarily for leagues without big TV contracts, where income comes primarily from gate receipts. Playing safely behind closed doors is expensive, and doing so for free or close to it, where there is no broadcast cash at stake, will hurt clubs financially.
But if seasons do end early, what to do?
Let’s be clear here: It’s not UEFA’s call, per se. If leagues want to shut up shop now and award titles based on cumulative squad numbers or alphabetical order, they’re free to do so — at least in theory. Equally, if they want to keep playing through 2021, they can do that too — in theory.
In practice, every league wants access to UEFA competitions — and the revenue they bring — and therefore will apply UEFA guidelines. Those guidelines emphasise a simple concept: sporting merit.
Some have focused on how they stop countries from declaring leagues “null and void,” which means the 2019-20 season is invalidated as if it never took place, wiping everything from the record books. That’s plain common sense. You can’t pretend things that happened never actually took place.
The real point here is that UEFA want teams to qualify for 2020-21 based on what they did in 2019-20; they’re just leaving it up to the leagues in terms of how to do it. If you don’t have enough time to complete all the fixtures, but can play some of them, you may want to opt for a playoff system to settle European places, titles or relegation. Or you can take the table as it was when play ended, or you can use average points. Or weighted points. Or whatever system your nerds come up with. The only condition is that it has to reflect what actually happened on the pitch while also being objective, transparent and nondiscriminatory. (This bit basically means you can’t send Manchester United into the Champions’ League instead of Leicester City because you think it benefits your league.)
That’s it. Everything else, from who to crown as champion to who to relegate to how to divvy up domestic prize money (which is what some people really care about), is up to the individual league.
As for those situations that are less clear-cut? Just lock decision-makers in a proverbial room and find a solution.
Take Serie A, where Juventus have a one-point lead over Lazio. Ask the clubs to vote: Juve, Lazio or “VACANT” (in which case, you don’t award a title). Relegation and promotion? Let’s face it: There’s one club suddenly making a ton more money and another club making a lot less money. So, for example, see if Norwich (bottom of the Premier League) and Leeds United (top of the Championship) can hammer out a deal. Maybe Norwich stays up but pays a chunk of their revenue next season to Leeds, or Leeds go up and do the reverse, sharing some of the cash bonanza with Norwich.
And if you can’t work it out and 20 adults in a (virtual) room can’t reach an agreement? Suck it up, don’t relegate anybody and promote the top teams from the second-flight. This wouldn’t be my choice, but hey, it’s down to which system stinks less at this point.
The point here is that UEFA didn’t issue edicts or rules from on high. They offered guidelines — and reasonable ones — for leagues to follow if they want to play in their competitions. The rest is up the people who run the leagues and the clubs.
I hope it doesn’t come to this, though, because I hope we can continue playing and wrap things up on the pitch. But if we can’t, I hope they remember that these are exceptional times, usual rules and regulations need not apply and there is such a thing as reasonable, common-sense consensus. I hope they find it.
Dutch Eredivisie decides to end season
The Dutch government’s decision to put ban all public gatherings until Sept. 1 means the Eredivisie won’t return and finish their 2019-20 season. There’s not much to argue about when decisions are made on a political level and not declaring the 2019-20 title vacant makes sense given that AZ Alkmaar and Ajax were level on points.
More complicated is what to do in terms of promotion and relegation, and here the Eredivisie becomes a test case for what we discussed above. The Dutch FA opted to have a consultative vote among the 34 clubs in the top two divisions (there are 38 teams, but four are the B-teams of top-flight clubs). Sixteen voted to enable promotion and relegation, nine voted against and nine abstained. Because there was no outright majority in favour of enabling promotion/relegation, the Dutch FA opted to freeze the situation.
Predictably this has sparked outrage and lawsuits from clubs like de Graafschap and Cambuur, who looked as if they had promotion all locked up. There’s a distinct possibility the courts might step in, and we may see a 20-team Eredivisie next season, but that would be far from ideal. Like I said earlier, though, there’s no good way to do this. Just “least bad” options. And you’re still holding out hope that some deal can be reached.
Don’t hate Ozil for turning down Arsenal pay cut
Mesut Ozil was turned into ubervillain No. 1 last week by some observers when reports emerged that he was one of two Arsenal players to turn down the club’s proposed 12.5% pay cut, which could reduce down to 7.5% or even zero if they hit certain targets.
– Laurens: Inside Arsenal’s pay cut controversy
Ozil already has two strikes against him in that he’s the club’s highest-paid player and his performances haven’t been much to write home about over the past two years. But depicting him as the epitome of greed is way off the mark. According to multiple sources, he was ready to accept an immediate wage deferral that would help with whatever cash flow issues the club might have had. And he was open to cutting his salary as well, once the club’s financial situation became clear and we understood just how hard the pandemic was affecting the books.
It’s an entirely reasonable stance, frankly. If his teammates, out of love for the club, agreed to rush into pay cuts without having an idea what Arsenal’s losses from the pandemic were going to be, that’s wonderful. But it’s unfair to slam Ozil for not going along with it.
A learning experience for Kean
Roughly this time last year, Moise Kean was coming off a run of scoring in six straight games (two of them for Italy, four of them for Juventus). He was one of Roberto Mancini’s bright young things at international level and some thought he could break into Juventus’ starting lineup alongside Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fast-forward 12 months. He hasn’t been seen in an Italy shirt since, and in those 12 months, he has scored just one goal in 26 club appearances. And now he thinks it’s a good idea to violate social distancing laws by hosting a party at his house. Dumb as it was, it becomes exponentially dumber by allowing one of the attendees to take videos and send them out on Snapchat.
It’s straight out of the Kyle Walker Manual of Numbskullery. Everton say they are “appalled,” and rightly so. Kean is 20 years old and, evidently, not as mature as some would like him to be, in the same way many of us made stupid choices at that age. Let this serve as a lesson.