Slowly but surely, the soccer world is making plans and reconvening in a bit to resume the season following the coronavirus outbreak. Gab Marcotti reacts to the main talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Baby steps toward returning
Today feels a little different. Maybe it's a hunch, maybe it's a gut feeling. Maybe it's self-delusion. Yet for the first time in several weeks, the pendulum feels as if it's swinging toward a return of professional top-flight football.
Not everywhere, of course. Belgium, the Netherlands and, most recently, France, have bowed out. The Premier League remains an indecipherable, ass-backward mess (more of this later). But Spain, Germany and Italy -- each at their own pace, each in their own way -- are inching closer to a return. A weird, behind-closed-doors return, but a return nonetheless.
Germany is further along than anyone. Clubs have been back in socially distanced training, players are being tested regularly and if, on Wednesday, the government gives the green light, they'll be back in action on May 23 (possibly even May 16).
In Spain, players are being tested this week ahead of a return to training; the government, league and FA have a truce of sorts, and Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad have petitioned to play the Copa del Rey final without restrictions. That last one may well be pie in the sky, but the fact they're even bringing it up tells you the mood has changed.
As for Italy, as social restrictions ease, clubs have started calling players back for training. They're nothing like "real" training sessions, but it's more than what we had a week ago. They too are still waiting for the government green light, but they're talking openly about a June 13 or June 20 restart.
The mantra, of course, has been the same all along: "We want to play, but we'll only do it once the government and medical authorities tell us it's safe to do so." But there's a difference between doing things halfheartedly, in case the phone rings and the government is on the other end telling you you're good to go, and actively preparing, believing the moment is near, or, at least approaching.
There are tons of unresolved questions here, starting with the June 30 contractual "cliff edge" -- what to do in case players test positive, logistics, quarantine (is it even feasible, or legal, to force players into quarantine for two months as some have suggested?). The list goes on and on. Everything could crumble and run through our fingers like dust: That's the nature of the pandemic.
But Germany, Spain and Italy took a baby step toward a restart over the weekend. They don't feel as if they're simply going through the motions in order to -- if necessary -- satisfy a court that, yes, they did try to play again but the government shut them down and so the TV companies better pony up the money. Many feel as if they truly believe. Maybe not most, but certainly more than did a week ago.
Don't hold your breath on Premier League's prep
You'll note I didn't include the Premier League in the item above. That's because they're simply on a different trajectory. Elsewhere, the conversations about a potential restart have been carried out in public, with league presidents and club officials speaking out regularly (in the case of La Liga's Javier Tebas, almost hourly). England has been different.
Gary Neville lamented the fact that nobody is speaking out. He later corrected it to exclude those who have -- West Ham, Crystal Palace -- but it's pretty evident that whatever they've been doing has been done privately and quietly ... assuming it's much of anything.
All we know for certain is that they have prospective dates (that might change) and that law enforcement has mandated that games must take place in neutral venues, supposedly for health and safety reasons and because they fear fans showing up outside.
The official line is that they're taking things step by step, dealing with matters as the government lifts restrictions. It doesn't do much to inspire confidence, frankly, because time is surely of the essence. What other leagues have done, for example, is develop detailed protocols for players and teams to follow, had them vetted by medical and scientific experts and then submitted them to the government for approval. If there's a protocol for the Premier League, very few have seen it.
All we have is leaked snippets that may or may not be true (Players sequestered at St George's Park! Training with face masks! Four million pounds spent on testing!) and Steve Parish telling us that the protocols being worked on will make matches "much safer than a journey to the supermarket at present." (I don't know what kind of supermarkets Parish patronises, but the ones I go to don't involve people in shorts and T-shirts running into me, tackling me and sweating profusely on me while under extreme adrenaline and stress.)
On Thursday, the British government is expected to make significant announcements about possibly easing lockdown restrictions and, the following day, the Premier League clubs are videoconferencing again to discuss the next step. (Their meetings have become weekly, whereas prior they were biweekly: another fact that casts doubt on how seriously they were taking this.)
Maybe they've been quietly and secretly getting all their ducks in a row so as to be able to hit the "go" button on "Project Restart." We'll find out by next weekend just how prepared they really are. Thus far, however, unlike Europe's other major leagues, they haven't given us much reason to hold your breath, at least in public.
Questioning the neutral venue plan
As mentioned above, the other (semi) certainty we have regarding the Premier League is that, if they restart, they'll need to play in eight to 10 neutral venues. One of the reasons behind this is concerns with supporters gathering outside the stadium to cheer on their team -- as happened, for example, in Paris, when Paris Saint-Germain faced Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
Leaving aside the fact that you'd expect law enforcement would be able to enforce laws and regulations, the PSG crowds were nearly two months and 200,000 deaths ago. You'd assume that just as the vast majority of the population has been able to follow basic rules about sheltering in place, so too could football fans. Besides, even if they play at neutral venues, these venues will still be in England. It's not as if there aren't Liverpool or Manchester United fans all over the country. Or that you can keep the venues secret, especially when you're televising the games.
Will the Bundesliga's plan to restart be derailed?
Gab Marcotti explains how three players from Cologne testing positive for COVID-19 will affect the Bundesliga's plan to resume.
The whole neutral venue plan has, understandably, raised all sorts of objections. The whole point of a 38-game schedule is balance: you play everybody home and away. If you enforce the neutral venue plan, some clubs will end the season with more home games than others. So much for that whole integrity-of-competition argument.
News that some clubs are willing to accept the neutral venues plan if relegation is removed this season is even more grotesque. At that point, what differentiates the remainder of the Premier League from a long set of friendlies, other than Liverpool winning the title mathematically and the battle to decide Champions League and Europa League places? And, in fact, if the bottom half of the Premier League have nothing to play for (other than fulfilling a TV contract), what incentive do they have to even turn up?
If neutral venues really are non-negotiable, then perhaps at that point you're better off not playing out the rest of the fixture list and instead figuring out some kind of playoff system to settle the remaining issues, one that would carry over some points from the 29 rounds already played. At least that way, teams would be more in control of their destiny and every match would have something at stake. And, as an added bonus, you could even play fewer matches. Since you're only going to televise 45 of them by contract, that wouldn't be a bad thing.
The transfer market's response to COVID-19
Juventus general manager Fabio Paratici and veteran agent Giovanni Branchini weighed in on what the transfer market might look like post-pandemic. The latter said we wouldn't see many top players moving because, with such a liquidity crisis in football, most were going to wait a season for the market to recover before selling their prized assets. The former opined that we'd see more loan deals because, as he sees it, "If you can't afford to buy, you rent."
Branchini is right in the sense that while a major move might cause a trickle down in the market, clubs will be shell-shocked and mired in uncertainty. And, in those circumstances, you tend to be conservative.
Meanwhile, Paratici's point is an interesting one, predicated on the fact that you still need players. A loan might be a chance to get a high earner off your books while giving him a shop window that allows you to cash in 12 months later.
Positive tests aren't derailing Bundesliga plans
News that two Cologne players (and a member of the backroom staff) tested positive for COVID-19 hasn't derailed the Bundesliga's plans, nor should it. The players went into quarantine and the rest of the squad trained on. And, by Monday, we discovered that there were no further positive tests.
It's an important test run because one of the biggest sticking points is what to do if somebody does test positive, despite your best efforts. In some countries, government advice right now is that the entire team (and possibly their opponents, if it happens after a game) will be quarantined for two weeks. If that's the case, it's likely to bring any league to a premature end, because two weeks off with the sort of fixture list we're dealing with means a team missing four games, without any certainty of when you can make them up.
It's also an argument in favour of allowing players to stay at home rather than quarantining them in a secure location with their teammates, which would increase the risk of contagion within a squad.