The COVID-19 has impacted just about every major sporting league, federation and association across the world. We’re going on to two months without any major sport and several codes and leagues are surrounded with uncertainty. Europe has been hit very hard from the virus, with the footballing leagues and competitions grinding to a halt.
France in particular has been devastated. At the time of writing the nation has a total of approximately 130,000 confirmed cases with 24,376 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19. The country has also entered a full lockdown, like many others on the continent, and their sporting leagues had to be suspended. However, a decision was made earlier this week, and announced by Prime Minister Édouard Phillipe, that no sporting competitions would take place until September at the earliest. This effectively meant that France’s football leagues would have to end prematurely, with no chance of the remainder of the season being completed. This left the French Football Federation (FFF), and the French Professional Football League (LFP), with a decision to make, but what they chose to do was completely wrong.
A decision came in overnight (daytime in France) that the league table remained as it stood, with those being the final places to end the 2019-2020 season in French football. This then meant that Paris Saint-Germain were awarded the Ligue 1 title, their seventh in eight years. Of course, this is typically a foregone conclusion in France, and PSG were 12 points ahead of second-placed Marseille, with a game in hand, so it’s the least controversial decision. However, with other places still up in the air, those are what have drawn the most ire from the football community.
As it stands, Marseille join PSG in automatic qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League, while third-placed Stade Rennais enter the qualifying rounds. Lille OSC, Stade de Reims and OGC Nice quality for the UEFA Europa League, with Olympique Lyonnais just missing out. For relegation, Toulouse FC and Amiens SC are automatically sent to Ligue 2. This is where it gets dicey.
Regarding the European Places, Lille were only one point behind Rennes and seven points behind Marseille, so qualification for the UEFA Champions League was still up in the air, aside from PSG more than likely finishing in 1st place. Lyon also miss out on qualifying for Europe at all, now finishing a mere point behind Nice, losing out on that final Europa League spot. Relegation was a little bit more certain, with Toulouse dangling down at the bottom, on just thirteen points, ten behind 19th placed Amiens. However, Amiens were only four points behind 18th placed Nîmes, who have now survived by the skin of their teeth. It is worth noting that there were still 10 matches remaining in the league – for a majority of teams – so plenty of outcomes were still anyone’s guess.
It can be forgotten just how financially rewarding, or damaging, relegation or European qualification can be. As a result of this, Lyon and Amiens are strongly considering legal action, feeling that they were hard done by the decision. Lyon released a statement, “Olympique Lyonnais reserves the right to appeal against that decision and claim damages, in particular in respect of loss of opportunity and in the light of the case-law of other professional sports which is currently under way, since the damage to the club amounts to several tens of millions of euros.” Bernard Joannin, the President of Amiens, echoed Lyon’s sentiments, “Injustice prevails. Amiens could not defend to the end, on the pitch, to remain in Ligue 1.” Both clubs, and many others, assumedly, will suffer the burdens of the LFP’s and FFF’s decision, which is a very wrong and despicable decision.
A league and its results are decided at the end of a season, when all matches have been completed. At the suspension of Ligue 1, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to devastate us all, the Ligue 1 still had ten matchdays remaining, rendering the season incomplete. Teams like Lyon and Amiens have every right to pursue legal action, due to the unforeseen circumstances that they have now been placed in. It’s also not as though a precedent hadn’t been set before them. Last week, the Netherlands’ Eredivisie was cancelled, with no promotion, relegation, or title being decided. It was as if the season never happened. In saying that, the Dutch federation did organise the European places at the behest of UEFA, though they hadn’t relegated, promoted or given the title to Ajax. This decision to still award European places is cruel, as were the decisions made in France, however in the Eredivisie’s case it does seem as though their arms were twisted by UEFA, so they can be excused far more so than the French authorities can be.
What remains to be seen is how will their fellow European leagues follow suit. Germany’s Bundesliga are hoping to return to play in the coming weeks, although this is granted as Germany have not been as devastated from the COVID-19 pandemic as have other European nations. Italy, one of the early epicentres of the virus, are hoping to resume training soon, and there has been no talk of any premature awarding of titles, promotion, relegation and European qualification. England remain the most interesting case, as Liverpool were clearly going to win the league. However, if you hand them the league before the season is properly completed, or if it is cancelled, then that would mean relegating a team like Bournemouth, who are 18th but level on points with Watford and West Ham. You can clearly see that cancelling a season early, but still awarding titles and places, can open up a massive can of worms.
It can only be hoped that if a league does choose, or is forced, to be cancelled, that any results are voided, and none follow the French model. To put it simply, you cannot decide the outcome of a league when it hasn’t finished, and all outcomes are still mathematically possible.