When is football coming back to Europe?

After weeks of suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, there is speculation about the return of the major European leagues when countries such as France and the Netherlands have already been suspended or others are set to return, such as Germany
Real Madrid's Spanish defender Sergio Ramos celebrates with fans during the Spanish League football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Madrid's Santiago Bernabéu stadium on 1 March 2020

AFP/GABRIEL BOUYS  -   Real Madrid's Spanish defender Sergio Ramos celebrates with fans during the Spanish League football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Madrid's Santiago Bernabéu stadium on 1 March 2020

When will the official football competition in the major leagues of the European continent return? That's the big question facing every self-respecting football fan. There's a lot of expectation about when and how football will return in the major countries of the international footballing concert, and the details are gradually becoming clearer. All this after the paralysis of competitions throughout almost the entire world due to the serious health crisis caused by the COVID-19 disease, which has already left hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of cases diagnosed worldwide. 

As far as the immediate area is concerned, the Spanish league competition intends to return in June. As a result, LaLiga, chaired by Javier Tebas, has planned a programme for the return of the league tournament, with eleven rounds remaining. 

Javier Tebas said he wanted to return on June 12 and there was speculation about the 20th of that month, as leaked by Javier Aguirre, coach of Leganes; but there is no fixed date. The idea is to play the last eleven dates of the calendar in only five weeks, compacting the calendar as much as possible to adjust the competition. In other words, if we resume the activity on June 20, the date that would put an end to the Spanish League would be July 26. Therefore, the intention is to play matches on Saturdays and Sundays and on Wednesdays and Thursdays, until everything else is completed. All this is subject to what the Ministry of Health dictates until then regarding the guidelines given depending on how the spread of the coronavirus in Spain evolves. 

Vinicius Junior del Real Madrid marca el primer gol durante el partido de fútbol de la Liga española entre el Real Madrid y el Barcelona en el estadio Santiago Bernabéu de Madrid, España, el domingo 1 de marzo de 2020
AP/ANDREA COMAS - Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid scores the first goal during the Spanish League football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, on Sunday, March 1, 2020

The measure has convinced the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), which has included the premise that five changes can be made instead of the three stipulated in a match. It will be possible to stop the match three times, twice to make double changes and once to introduce a hypothetical fifth substitution; thanks also to the approval given by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

Spanish football has been returning to activity in most cases. Most Spanish teams have resumed training to prepare for the 2019-2020 season, despite the blow of the coronavirus pandemic. In the middle of last week, many clubs contacted their players for medical check-ups and tests for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease to rule out cases of infection. Although these checks have been positive, such as that of Renan Lodi, a player of Atletico Madrid, 

Each team has had its own pattern of return to the activity, but from LaLiga had communicated to the clubs that the best option was to start all at once and go in step to start the work during the same day, something that was not fulfilled. However, the protocols disseminated by LaLiga for protection and control against the coronavirus were generally respected, including the compulsory use of masks and gloves and the maintenance of a safe distance. 

El presidente de LaLiga, Javier Tebas
REUTERS/PAUL HANNA - LaLiga President Javier Tebas

It was established that the training practices would be individual in the first phase, and then the players would be integrated into small groups, leaving for a final phase the joint work of the whole staff, as had been usual and normal before the health crisis of the COVID-19.

There were teams that passed the tests earlier than others that lagged behind and were tested later this week; these will have to wait to start training on the pitch longer than other teams that applied earlier. 

La Liga, the body that brings together Spanish clubs in the First and Second Division, already hopes to be able to restart the competition next June as has been pointed out and as Javier Tebas said in an official statement before the teams even started training this past week. 

The clubs "return to training this week after the approval by the Ministry of Health of the return to sports training," as indicated in the official note of LaLiga, which also explained the health protocol to be followed by players and all kinds of staff. "A staggered return to training has been designed that will include everything from solo training to group exercise prior to the return to competition scheduled for June," said LaLiga.

Although this planning is finally subject to the "de-escalation process established by the government", which since last Monday began to relax the home confinement that applies in Spain since mid-March, maintaining certain rules of social distancing and particular protection to prevent infection and further spread of the coronavirus. 

This phase in Spain now comes after a key summit in April with the Consejo Superior de Deportes (CSD) and the RFEF and LaLiga, with the latter two bodies as the governing bodies of Spanish football. The CSD, with Irene Lozano at its head, finally brought about an understanding between the Federation and LaLiga, whose presidents, Luis Rubiales and Javier Tebas respectively, had been having many disagreements over the terms of the return of the competition and also over many other previous issues related to calendars and match organisation. The Secretary of State for Sport Irene Lozano acted as a mediator and encouraged a rapprochement between two 'recognised enemies' such as Rubiales and Tebas.

El presidente de la Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF), Luis Rubiales
AFP/OSCAR DEL POZO - The president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales

The issue of playing in public or behind closed doors must now also be analysed. But everything points to the fact that there will be no spectators in the stadiums due to the demonstrations made by the Minister of Health, Salvador Illa, about the unsuitability of planning a public event with a lot of spectators, obviously due to the current situation in the Spanish nation, which already has more than 26,000 dead and more than 224,000 infected. 

On the other hand, the English League or Premier League, the most powerful economically in the current panorama (thanks to the generous television contracts it enjoys) also has planned its return to the playing fields. 

In the United Kingdom, it would be played again in mid-June, as planned by the authorities. Although all this between severe measures of hygiene and protection (masks and gloves) and with the required coronavirus detection tests to discover possible infections, in addition to the dispute of closed games to reduce the risks. 

All this also depends on the approval of the British National Health Service (NHS), which must give its approval for the return of the sports competition without much risk to those involved. This is all the more important given the number of victims in those areas, with almost 32,000 dead and more than 220,000 affected. 

As for another country that has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, along with Spain and the United Kingdom, such as Italy, with more than 30,000 deaths and over 219,000 cases, we are also cautious when talking about the return of 'calcio'. For the moment, in general sports, transalpine political leaders planned the return to training and exercises from May 4 individually, while team sports will have to wait until May 18. All this is aimed at preparing a possible and longed for return of the dispute of matches.

Los jugadores del Inter de Milán y de la Juventus juegan en un estadio vacío debido al brote de coronavirus durante el partido de fútbol de la Serie A italiana, en Turín el 8 de marzo de 2020
AFP/VICENCIO PINTO - Inter Milan and Juventus players play in an empty stadium due to the outbreak of coronavirus during the Italian Serie A football match in Turin on March 8, 2020

Italy's Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, said that he loves football and is looking forward to the return of the official tournaments and the league competition of the Seria A. "Now training is back and later we will see if the championships can be resumed," said Conte. 

One of the most important news in the concert of European football was given by Germany. The Bundesliga is set to return on 15 May, as the German Football Association (DFB) has revealed, all after receiving the go-ahead for its resumption from German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself. 

The Bundesliga, which has been suspended since March by COVID-19, plans to return in the middle of this month and has already informed the 36 clubs in the first and second divisions, as reported in the Bild newspaper.

Matías Vecino del Inter de Milán celebra después de marcar el segundo gol de su equipo durante el partido de fútbol de la Serie A entre el Inter de Milán y el AC Milan en el estadio de San Siro, el domingo 9 de febrero de 2020
PHOTO/MASSIMO PAOLONE/LAPRESSE VIA AP - Inter Milan's Matías Vecino celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Serie A football match between Inter Milan and AC Milan at the San Siro stadium on Sunday 9 February 2020

Both Angela Merkel and the various regional leaders of the Teutonic Länder gave the green light for the return of official matches, albeit behind closed doors and under strict protective and hygienic measures to avoid contagion.

"The decision is good news for the first and second seasons of the Bundesliga. It is also linked to a great responsibility for the clubs, which must comply with medical and organisational rules," said Christian Seiffert, executive director of the German league competition, referring to the requirements demanded by the German government. 

In fact, the round of coronavirus testing for all first and second division players, coaching staff and other match participants began last week. 

Aficionados fuera del estadio antes del partido entre el Inter Milan v AC Milan
PHOTO/REUTERS - Fans outside the stadium before the match between Inter Milan and AC Milan

Seiffert acknowledged that playing behind closed doors again is not the preferred situation, but he also felt that it is the only way to complete the remainder of the 2019-2020 season. With nine rounds remaining, Bayern are four points clear of Borussia Dortmund at the top of the table.

In the case of Germany, club and DFB officials are now expected to meet on Thursday to define the next steps up to the season's re-opening. However, the discovery of a couple of positive cases involving Dynamo Dresden players could jeopardise the return plan. 

Because the intention to end the season, as is the wish in Germany and other countries like Spain and Italy, has to do with the economic needs and impositions that exist. Many of the clubs in the European leagues, mainly the smaller ones (although in some cases, some of the big ones too), depend on the income generated by the competition to ensure their subsistence and maintain their budgets. This is particularly true of the income from match broadcasting rights, which is very high in the case of the major countries, especially the United Kingdom. 

Another interest, of course, is to end the season fairly and not to award championship titles and qualification for international competitions or relegate players without having played all the matches that were due to be played, using the way the league table looked at the time when it was stopped. 

This has happened, for example, in a couple of somewhat smaller leagues, such as those of France and the Netherlands. The French and Dutch political authorities decided to put a premature end to their national tournaments and set the result of the season by taking the provisional positions that existed at the time the competition stopped. This provoked the logical controversy of, for example, the proclamation of Paris Saint-Germain as champions in the French case (which did not please the fans of the top rival teams) and the granting of European places and the awarding of relegation. In the French case the losses due to the suspension of the season reached 280 million euros. 

In France, the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe made the definitive end of the season official, so Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 will not play any official matches this season; despite the fact that the French League's directors wanted to resume the competition from mid-June. 

The LFP General Assembly will meet in May to decide on qualification, relegation and promotion. Although it was already implied that, for example, PSG would be proclaimed champions. In the Netherlands, this has to be made more concrete too. 

The French Prime Minister said that "the competitions will not be resumed, especially football" because there is "a risk of a second wave", which would be "serious". Philippe stressed that "events that bring together more than 5,000 people will not be able to take place before September". Nor will training be able to resume as planned, as the French government has banned group training for more than ten people.

In the Netherlands, the government also determined at the end of April that official competition in all sports would be suspended. The Dutch federation did not award the title to then leader Ajax, but will enter them in the top spot of the Champions League and play in the preliminary group of Europe's top competition. AZ, second on goal difference, will play the Champions League qualifier, Feyenoord, PSV and Willem II will play the Europa League and there are no relegations or promotions.

In Belgium it was also decided not to resume competition, being the first country in which it was determined not to play again, with the decision taken in early April. In the Belgian case, it was decreed that the champion was Bruges, who led the classification with a big difference in favor at that time, despite the fact that the Belgian system has established a playoff system to crown the champion. 

UEFA continues to live with expectation and concern about the evolution of the decisions in each country after having stated at the time that the clear guideline was to complete the national leagues even if it was in the summer. Its president, Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA's president, spoke clearly about this and pointed out that the championships had to be completed in order to organise the following season, but the stubbornness of COVID-19 may put an end to these intentions.

El presidente de la UEFA, Aleksander Ceferin, durante una conferencia de prensa
REUTERS/YVES HERMAN - UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin during a press conference

We will see if the football industry is powerful and organised enough to overcome this situation and to be able to restart a machine that generates a lot of hope, and also a lot of money.