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Games gone: Virus’s cancellations of British sport unprecedented in peacetime

 

TOP-LEVEL football and a swathe of other sporting events in England, Scotland and Wales were suspended yesterday due to the coronavirus, in an unprecedented peacetime move.

SATURDAY, MARCH 14, 2020

The Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League, FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship all agreed to call a halt to competitive action with immediate effect until early April.

With the Old Firm tie between Celtic and Rangers originally due tomorrow, the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League issued a joint statement saying that all football in that country was being suspended until further notice. In Wales, the domestic and grassroots season has been put on hold until April 4 at the earliest.

In Europe, Uefa announced that all of next week’s Champions League and Europa League ties had been postponed, with competing teams affected by the virus itself and by travel restrictions imposed because of it.

The FA cancelled England’s international friendlies against Italy and Denmark which were scheduled for later this month, while the Football Association of Wales called off the match against Austria on March 27.

English football’s National League held a board meeting yesterday and decided that the weekend’s non-league ties would still go ahead, but said that it would “keep the operation of its competition under constant and diligent review.”

National League club Boreham Wood did announce that its home tie against Torquay would be cancelled, however, due to its links and shared facilities with infection-hit Arsenal.

The England cricket team cut short their tour of Sri Lanka while the year’s first golf major, the Masters, has been postponed.

The Wales v Scotland Six Nations rugby match, the only one of the original three ties due to be played this weekend still standing, was also finally postponed.

The London Marathon was postponed from April to October, joining other major races in Paris and Boston with postponements.

Monday’s horse racing at Kelso will now take place behind closed doors following the Scottish government’s advice on mass gatherings.

The final day of the Cheltenham Festival went ahead as scheduled yesterday, but elsewhere the story was one of unprecedented disruption.

Government advice on mass gatherings in England and Wales was not changed despite the decision on Thursday to move into the “delay” phase in tackling the virus, but the spread of the illness among competitors forced the hand of most organisers.

It is understood that discussions will take place as necessary between the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and HM Treasury on any support that might be required for the sport sector as a consequence of the pandemic.

The suspension of competition followed positive tests for Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta and Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi, with other clubs reporting that members of their playing and coaching staff were self-isolating as a precaution after experiencing symptoms consistent with Covid-19.

The whole of Everton’s first-team squad was told to stay at home after one player went into seven-day self-isolation as a precaution.

The outcome of next Tuesday’s meeting of European governing body Uefa may provide the English and Scottish leagues with some wiggle room. If a decision is taken to postpone Euro 2020 until the summer of 2021, it creates the possibility of domestic competitions being completed in June and even July if necessary.

The meeting on Tuesday will also look at how, if at all, the Champions League and Europa League competitions can be completed.

Dropping down to single-leg ties could be one option to speed the competition up on a one-off basis, but Uefa will be keen for its member associations to complete their domestic competitions so that there is no knock-on impact to the 2020-21 Champions League and Europa League.

The Premier League statement said its aim was to reschedule the displaced fixtures, but for both it and the EFL there may be issues regarding promotion, relegation and European qualification.

Suggestions that league tables should be finalised as they stand opens up the prospect of legal challenges from affected clubs.

And in the EFL and below in particular, the inability to play further matches would have a major financial implication too with match-day earnings a vital source of revenue.

But the focus from the competition organisers yesterday was ensuring the health and well-being of all involved in the first instance.

The Professional Footballers’ Association welcomed the move, saying: “We have been in regular dialogue with both the leagues and have communicated direct concerns from PFA delegates and senior players on behalf of their respective squads. The leagues shared these concerns.

“Collectively the stakeholders have made a decision based on the safety and welfare of players, club staff and fans.”

The Football Supporters’ Association chief executive Kevin Miles said: “Match days are a central part of a supporter’s life but this is an unprecedented public-health emergency and public safety has to come first.

“The decision to suspend fixtures until April reflects the seriousness of the situation. Fans should heed the advice of health experts.”

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