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Premier League wrestle with ‘Project Restart’

Premier League clubs meet on Friday to discuss plans to restart the 2019/20 season © AFP / Adrian DENNIS

LONDON, United Kingdom, Apr 30Premier League clubs will meet on Friday to discuss whether it is realistic to complete the season during the coronavirus crisis or whether they will have to brace for a devastating financial hit.

The Dutch season has already been called off, Belgium looks set to go the same way and French clubs met Thursday to decide whether to declare their season over.

But with the English top-flight facing an eye-watering estimated loss of £1 billion ($1.25 billion) if no more football is played, there is a huge incentive to play the 92 remaining games if feasible.

The Premier League also appears to have the support of the government in Britain, which now has the third-highest death toll in the world from COVID-19.

Speaking in parliament last week, Oliver Dowden, Britain’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, said he had been in talks with league chiefs over getting football up and running again.

Liverpool fans will be the keenest for the season to restart, with Jurgen Klopp’s side on the brink of their first league title for 30 years when matches were suspended in March.

AFP Sport looks at the issues the Premier League is facing:

Testing

Brighton and Tottenham’s stadiums have been transformed into drive-through coronavirus testing centres © AFP / Glyn KIRK

Testing has been a thorny political issue during the pandemic in Britain, with many frontline workers unable to access tests until recently.

Although capacity has been ramped up as the government raced to meet a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, there is still unease at the prospect of young, healthy footballers being regularly tested when other members of society are not.

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Players and officials could be tested up to twice a week, according to a Sky Sports report on Thursday.

“Are we sending the right message to society? Does it encourage a healthy return or does it maybe send a bad signal suggesting football has different rules than the rest of the world,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, general secretary of players’ union FIFPro.

The Premier League can ill afford another PR disaster in the midst of the crisis after several stumbles so far.

Liverpool, Tottenham and Bournemouth have backtracked on their plans to use government money to prop up the wages of non-playing staff due to public pressure.

And the issue of whether players should take a pay cut has rumbled on.

Player welfare

Players would have to ignore current social distancing guidelines during matches © AFP/File / Adrian DENNIS

Former England captain Wayne Rooney complained players had been treated like “guinea pigs” in the days before football was shut down.

The push to suspend the season only gathered pace when Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi tested positive, demonstrating that even those in a relatively protected bubble were at risk.

“We have reiterated that players are not just footballers but partners, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who share the same health concerns as everyone else during this pandemic,” said Bobby Barnes, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.

Liverpool could win a first league title in 30 years in an empty stadium © AFP/File / Paul ELLIS

Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville, who owns a stake in League Two side Salford City, went even further when he asked: “How many people have to die playing football in the Premier League before it becomes unpalatable?”

Neville is one of many who believe economic angst is overriding the necessity for players to return to a safe environment while Baer-Hoffmann said putting pressure on players to come back could add to their anxiety.

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On top of the risk to their health, players would potentially face the mental toil of weeks away from their families, quarantined in hotels.

Where would games be played?

If matches are to return, it is most likely they will do so in a small number of venues across the country behind closed doors to minimise the number of ambulance, police, security and broadcast personnel needed.

However, there are fears that fans could still congregate near stadiums either during matches or to celebrate major triumphs.

Liverpool, 25 points ahead of reigning champions Manchester City at the top, are potentially two games away from wrapping up the title

“Even if it was behind closed doors, there’d be many thousands of people who would turn up outside Anfield,” Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson told the BBC.

“There’s not many people who would respect what we were saying and stay away from the ground. A lot of people would come to celebrate so I think it’s a non-starter.”

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