European Soccer’s Leaders Plot a Speedy Return, With or Without Fans

In Italy, soccer stopped as fans of Lazio, a club based in Rome, were dreaming that their two-decade wait for a league title might be ending, buoyed by an unbeaten run that started in September.

In England, Liverpool was on course to end its 30-year championship drought with an all-but-insurmountable 25-point lead. But these teams, along with many others across Europe, have had their narrative arcs frozen in time by concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

As the virus spread across Europe, the talk was about when soccer would be stopped — games were first played behind closed doors, then postponed and then subjected to blanket bans as governments moved to contain the crisis.

Now, the question is when players will be able to return to the field.

With millions of people isolated in their houses either by government edict or voluntarily, Lars-Christer Olsson, the Swedish head of a group representing Europe’s top soccer leagues, said his organization was looking into ways soccer could return even while movement restrictions remained in place for large parts of the continent’s population. Games might be able to be played behind closed doors, if safe, he suggested, and be broadcast into homes.

“We need to help each other and give entertainment to the people stuck at home,” Olsson said by telephone. “But this will have to depend on the governments.”

It has been just days since UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, postponed its quadrennial championship, which was set to be played this summer, paving the way for club competitions to run beyond their scheduled dates in May, and perhaps into June and July, and maybe even beyond that.

England’s Premier League said Thursday that it was committed to completing its season and had agreed with the national soccer federation to extend the limit to when it can be completed “indefinitely.”

Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, the general secretary of FIFPro, an umbrella body for global player unions, said he supported the idea, but only after “the relaxation of extreme government measures” and only when it was safe to play without fans. He added that players’ preference would always be to play in front of spectators, though he admitted waiting until that was possible might not be realistic considering the economic pressure on the industry.

A day earlier, Olsson was a part of a conference call organized by UEFA to bring together representing clubs, players’ union representatives and leagues — groups that had spent much of the last year at loggerheads amid negotiations over the future of the sport and its powerful leagues. The impact of the coronavirus, though, has forced some of those enmities to the side, for now.

“It’s the simple reason everyone seems to realize we have to put greed aside and we have to work together,” Olsson said.

Restarting the games in time to finish various competitions will require a lot of good will and flexibility — not least from the players, some of whom will be out of contract in the likely event that games run beyond June.

FIFA, the global governing body, announced on Wednesday that it was assessing its rules on player contracts, understanding the need for “amendments or temporary dispensations.”

After Tuesday’s conference call, soccer leaders agreed to set up two committees: one to deal with the complex issues of devising a new short-term calendar, and another to focus on the various financial conundrums, including broadcasting contracts, sponsorships and UEFA’s cost-control regulations for clubs — requirements they must meet to be granted access to competitions like the Champions League.

UEFA has estimated that postponing the Euros by a year would create a $300 million hit, which could mean less money distributed to its 55 national soccer federations. That loss will probably have to be borne by UEFA reducing the amount it pays to clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League, Olsson said.

A plan to introduce a third-tier European competition, the Europa Conference League, in 2021, will probably have to be scrapped, too, Olsson added. “Where will they find the money for that now,” he said.

Whatever happens, Olsson said, soccer will have changed after enduring its biggest crisis since World War II. “I think it will not look exactly like it does now,” he said.

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