Wherever you reside, you are likely under some sort of stay at home order as the world fights its worst pandemic in roughly 100 years. It's a necessary inconvenience, but cabin fever does begin to set in as we all endure the seemingly endless hours of being cooped up. Luckily, a few jogs a week and daily walks with my wife break up the monotony, but that only goes so far.
There is still that void of sports. As someone who follows not only Roma, but also American sports franchises like the New York Yankees and New York Islanders this time of year, something certainly is missing. I’ve been watching Sunderland Til’ I Die on Netflix to help fill the void, but, even as I watch that, I can’t help to think about how foreign it suddenly feels to see 40,000 fans packed together in a stadium or to just to see people interacting at all without having to social distance.
Of course, we all hope that this pandemic passes in the most expeditious way, with as little loss of life as possible. We are all yearning for things to return to “normal”—just when that is remains to be seen—but we may finally be getting some clues when live sports will return, particularly football.
FIFA Guidelines Released
FIFA released new guidelines on Tuesday that were unanimously approved by all member federations. The guidelines relate to player contracts due to expire, the transfer window, and football employment agreements. (The entire release can be found here.)
Expiring player contracts usually end when the season ends, with a termination date that coincides with the end of the season. With the current suspension of play in most countries, it is now obvious that the current season will not end when people thought it would. Therefore, it is proposed that contracts be extended until such time that the season does actually end. This should be in line with the original intention of the parties when the contract was signed and should also preserve sporting integrity and stability.
A similar principle applies to contracts due to begin when the new season starts, meaning the entry into force of such contracts is delayed until the next season actually does start.
With regard to transfer windows, again, it is necessary to adjust the normal regulatory position to the new factual circumstances. Accordingly, FIFA will be flexible and will allow the relevant transfer windows to be moved so they fall between the end of the old season and the start of the new season.
At the same time, FIFA will try to ensure, where possible, an overall level of coordination and will also bear in mind the need to protect the regularity, integrity and proper functioning of competitions, so that the sporting results of any competition are not unfairly disrupted.
What It All Means
This release is big news for leagues like Serie A, who remain optimistic about completing the current season, as it allows the current season to run into the summer. FIFA will also allow player contracts to run past their normal June 30th expiration dates if need be. Without this decision, there likely would have been no way to play out all the remaining fixtures prior to the end of the league year.
This extension of player contracts, and likely the season into July, means that the transfer market will be adjusted too. With the 2019-20 season certainly ending later than June 30, the 2020-21 will probably start a bit later than usual too. With this in mind, FIFA will allow for transfer windows to be adjusted accordingly.
Serie A’s Plan
What does all this mean for Italy and Serie A? Well, with Italy seemingly past the peak of virus cases, there is optimism that the season can be resumed. According to a report from Gazzetta dello Sport, training for clubs could begin in just under a month on May 4th. This would follow the same model that the Bundesliga has proposed, where training would begin with social distancing, before gradually returning to normal.
What exactly training with social distancing would look like remains to be seen. I would assume that it would involve a lot of individual work to get players fitness back before resuming team drills and tactical work. With this training target in mind, the league also has three options to resume matches.
With 13 match days remaining, Serie A would need six and a half weeks to complete the domestic calendar. Considering that, the league could restart on either May 24th, May 31st, or June 7th and be completed somewhere between mid and late July.
Is It Realistic?
With Italy still on lockdown, it remains to be seen just how realistic this proposal is. The optimistic part of me wants to believe that, with the recent statistical improvements in virus cases, in another month things can be good enough to resume limited training. However, with so many variables involved with this situation, it may still be difficult to pull off.
Teams would still have to deal with players returning from other countries and then going through another quarantine period. Routine testing would still likely have to occur to ensure that players aren’t carrying the virus. That’s something that could be aided by the news that Italy has a ‘reliable’ immunity test for Covid-19. By being able to know if a players fits into one of the three categories—positive, not positive but immune and not positive-not immune—it should help ease some nerves. But, there will be plenty of players who don’t have immunity.
However, with some of the harder hit areas of the north still grappling with the virus, it remains to be seen if places like Milan and Bergamo are safe enough for players to get back to work in a month. Additionally, it leads us to wonder what happens if a player tests positive? Does the whole league shut back down? Which leads us to another idea that’s been floated...
An All Rome End to the Season
According to a report in La Repubblica via Football Italia, there has been a more extreme restart proposal floated. It’s a similar proposal to one being floated by Major League Baseball in the United States. Similar to the MLB proposal, which would see the season start in empty spring training stadiums only in the state of Arizona, this Italian proposal would have all matches played in and around Rome.
The logic behind both proposals would be to minimize travel and contact with individuals outside the club by having the games played in a region that has been less hard hit by the coronavirus. In the Italian proposal, all remaining league matches would be played in several stadiums in the Lazio region, including the Olimpico. The season would restart around the same time as the aforementioned proposal—after a 45 day quarantine period to get players back in shape.
Could It Work?
In theory, this plan might be more feasible than starting up nationwide. Just like MLB, which would maximize games played by avoiding hot spots like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, the Italian proposal would keep players out of hot-spots like Milan and Bergamo. This could go a long way in preventing players from becoming infected.
Since the matches would in all likelihood played behind closed doors, the location of the matches shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Would teams like Lazio and Roma have a slight advantage being able to train at home? In short, yes. However, in actual matches being played being closed doors, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Nonetheless, one can only imagine Andrea Agnelli being less than keen in giving Lazio any kind of advantage with the current league table being so tight.
While this set-up does have some advantages over a nationwide restart, it would likely be a last ditch resort.
No matter the route Serie A, MLB, or any other leagues around the world take, when sports eventually return they will be a sight for sore eyes. Even if they can only be played in closed stadiums and seen on TV, sports have a healing power. I saw it firsthand as a New Yorker after September 11th, when the city (and much of the country) rallied behind the Yankees in their World Series defeat.
Sports bring people together (even spiritually and emotionally) like few other things can. So, while sports will initially return in a different way than normal, they will be vital in helping people deal with the emotional, social, economic, and physical fallout from this brutal pandemic.