There are crises. And then there are crises.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented European football with a Rubik’s cube like no other to unravel.
Complex questions, unprecedented decisions and unenviable repercussions are facing the game’s administrators and clubs with livelihoods, integrity and survival all on the line.
It’s the beautiful game’s Darwinism moment – and nobody’s immune.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. European football is funded by billions of dollars from television rights deals, but clubs also understand that the health of their players and employees can’t be compromised.
“For lots of teams it is an existential question – a question of survival,” Lutz Pfannenstiel, who is sporting director at Bundesliga club Fortuna Düsseldorf, told CNN Sport.
No ‘one size fits all’ solution
Barring the anomaly of Belarus, football across the continent has been on lockdown since mid-March.
As countries begin embarking on phased reopenings, leagues are having to delicately navigate how and if to end the current season.
Whilst there’s a strong desire by European governing body UEFA to see domestic competitions through to their completion, the menu of best worst-case restart options is largely unpalatable.
And for some the consequences proved too hard to swallow.
Last month, the Dutch Eredivisie declared its season effectively null and void.
Ajax was on course to lift its 35th title, though there’ll now be no champion crowned for the first time in the league’s 64-year history.
“Of course (we were) disappointed,” former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who is now the club’s chief executive, told CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell.
“At the end of your career, you always look at how many league titles you won […] and so that’s why for the club, it’s maybe understandable that […] the players would have rather […] seen it differently.”
To add insult to injury, there’ll be no relegation from and no promotion to the top-flight – a decision which led Cambuur head coach Henk de Jong to call it “the biggest disgrace in the history of Dutch sports.”
De Jong’s side were 11 points clear at the top of the Eerste Divisie (Dutch second division) and primed for the big time.
That dream has been snatched from them, and a legal challenge against the ruling has followed suit with a final decision pending.
The picture is equally fraught in France where the top-two divisions were ended through a weighted points-per-game system.
Whilst Paris Saint-Germain can now toast a third successive Ligue 1 title, discontent is brewing.
Lyon, who finished seventh and have subsequently missed out on European football for the first time since 1997, announced on Friday it is taking action against the French League’s (LFP) decision to end the season, by first going to the Administrative Court of Paris.
Meanwhile Amiens, who finished second from bottom, has launched a petition calling for the league (LFP) to review its decision to relegate the club – one which is “fraught with consequences that goes against fairness in sport.”
Across the Channel, the UK has recorded the most number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe, jeopardizing England’s Premier League hopes of resuming the season.
Proposals by the league to conclude the season at several neutral grounds have reportedly been met with a less than enthusiastic response.
Sports lawyer Daniel Geey explained that whilst each league is governed by its own constitutional and contractual relationships, all face a fine balance between pragmatism and satisfying its members in the fairest way possible.
He told CNN Sport: “It’s imperative to prepare and plan with the possibility that things might not go to plan […] You have this football ecosystem of lots of different stakeholders trying their best to mitigate against what is a completely unforeseen situation.
“The reasonableness and proportional aspects will play a part of the rationale […] Would a reasonable league administrator come to a decision which it believes resulted in the fairest, most proportionate and non-discriminatory outcome for all of its league participants.”
Big financial hit
Striking a balance, though, between upholding sporting integrity and preserving financial sustainability has never been more important.
Van der Sar is under no illusions that there’ll be a “big hit” for everyone involved with income streams from broadcast deals to commercial and matchday revenue drying up like never before.
Although clubs in the world’s richest league – England’s Premier League – enjoy the spoils of a multibillion-dollar domestic TV rights deal, it is they who stand to lose the most in this crisis.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire has calculated that should the season be scrapped, domestic broadcasters could be entitled to an eye-watering rebate of almost $1 billion.
“A lot of that money has already been advanced by the TV companies to the Premier League, who has then distributed it to the clubs,” Maguire told CNN Sport.
“So the clubs will be in this real pincer movement in the sense that they’re going to have to pay money back but they’ve got no money coming in to pay that money back.”
And what about wages?
According to Maguire, they have increased a staggering 2,811% since the league’s inception in the 1992-93 season.
Although a handful of clubs have negotiated wage reductions or deferrals during this period, Maguire did not believe an umbrella wage cap would be introduced any time soon.
“If you are one of the elite clubs in the big six you’re competing against Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich. PSG and so on. If there isn’t one being applied against your peer group across the rest of Europe, then you’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage.”
Whilst football is big business behind the numbers are livelihoods at all levels of the game.
Pfannenstiel is one of 60,000 people employed in the Bundesliga. The consequences of not playing football, he said, posed a very real question of survival.
“If there would be no football played for many, many months or […] the unthinkable would have happened not till the end of the year, then of course, for every club in the big leagues, it would have been very difficult,” he said.
Return to normality
Despite the gloomy outlook, glimmers of light are emerging.
Following government approval, Germany is set to be the first of European football’s big leagues to return to action on May 16 – albeit with strict caveats in place.
Games will be played behind closed doors with around 300 people present on matchdays, and there’ll be extensive testing and monitoring of staff.
Pfannenstiel, though, said it was a step towards returning to normality.
“We [clubs, footballers, individuals] have now this big responsibility that all the requirements of the [hygienic and health] concepts are implemented,” he said. “That is an unbelievable amount of discipline. It’s really up to us […] to get some blood into the veins of this concept.”
Basic rules involving social distancing – washing of hands, wearing of face masks – will be followed with “full discipline” and players have been kept up to speed with the very latest information through virtual workshops to alleviate any lingering doubts.
Getting complete buy in, though, across the board on moral, medical and ethical grounds, presents perhaps the biggest challenge of all.
There’s an acute awareness that whilst football’s return may boost morale it should not come at the cost of taking away vital resources for key workers at such a critical time.
“How do you test players if still staff from hospitals or bus drivers or teachers are lacking those tests? I think it’s most important that if you want to start a country, that you also look at other professions and not only professional sports,” said Van der Sar.
Manchester City star Sergio Aguero has spoken of Premier League players being “scared” about a possible return to action with COVID-19 still a threat whilst it has been reported that doctors from the 20 clubs have emailed the league listing around 100 questions and issues over returning to training.
‘Health before money’
The situation in Spain is no different.
Cadiz central defender Rafael Gimenez, whose team sits top of the Spanish second division, has refused to undergo testing – Going so far as to forgo his salary while he boycotts training and matches.
“I’m thinking about health before money,” Gimenez told Cadena Ser. “I will not earn a wage in this period and if even one euro enters my account I’ll give it back.”
The game is unquestionably in unchartered territory where the familiar has become unfamiliar and the certain uncertain.
But it will return.
And when it does, for Pfannenstiel its importance won’t just be measured in financial or medical terms but by its emotional impact.
“Football has a social responsibility […] It has a big factor on normal life,” he said.
“Yes, it might look a bit strange without fans in the stadium […] Yes, there maybe also a bit of emotion is missing.
“But trust me that I if I look into my crystal ball, how many millions probably hundreds of millions of people all over the world, looking forward to watch some good class, good level Bundesliga football […] I think it’s a really wonderful thing and something important.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Snell