Many UEFA club matches were played behind closed doors before their suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.

How COVID-19 Has Affected the Football Industry

COVID-19, also known as Coronavirus, is a viral infection that causes lung illness and originated in Wuhan, China, where the disease was first identified. 

The virus has caused global pandemic to the sports industry and ground to a halt many football events around the world in both domestic and international competitions.

Despite the disease being first identified in December 2019, it wasn’t until the start of the new year 2020 that the effects really started to emerge.

Early Signs Of Disruption Outside Of China

The early signs of disruption in football outside of China due to Coronavirus were in the second week of March 2020 when FIFA – the International Federation of Association Football and the highest governing body of football – released a statement to domestic football teams that they were not obliged to release their players to take part in national team football matches.

It was clear that despite China cancelling the 2020 Chinese Super League in January 2020 and locking-down almost the entire country; the spread of the virus was about to get a whole lot worse.

Typically, domestic club teams are obliged to release players for international matches and players can be fined for refusing to play, but FIFA announced that there would be no consequences for club or player refusal and that it was actually recommending international matches to be postponed during the months of March and April 2020.

In the two weeks that followed, all but two domestic football leagues – Belarusian Premier League and Liga Primera de Nicaragua – had been suspended due to the rapid spread of the disease on a global scale.

European Football Competitions

The first quarter of the year is always a busy one on the football calendar and as the virus continued to spread outside of Asia, concerns grew for fan safety. 

As a result of this, many matches in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League were played in empty stadiums, also known as behind closed doors, throughout February and early March.

However, as the middle of March approached, UEFA began to announce a series of postponements, starting with the under-17 and under-19 youth matches for both women and men’s fixtures within this age bracket.

Within twenty-four hours, the  administrative body for association football made the executive decision to suspend all fixtures for the Champions League and Europa League.

European Domestic Football Leagues

As the news spread that both international football matches and European competitions had been postponed, league officials agreed that the pandemic was too risky to allow matches to continue even behind closed doors.

Italy was the first major European nation to issue a lock-down order and suspended all sporting events, including Serie A football matches in two major Italian regions, but later issued an outright suspension for the foreseeable future and until health conditions would allow them to resume.

Following the lock-down in Italy, Spain was the next nation to suspend football matches for a minimum period of two weeks due to a basketball player of top flight club Real Madrid testing positive for COVID-19, which incidentally resulted in professional footballers at the Spanish side, managed by Zinedine Zidane, being placed in quarantine.

Less than 12 hours later, Germany’s premier football competition Bundesliga, French association football tournament Ligue 1 and Dutch football league Eredivisie took heed and shut down their fixtures.

However, it wasn’t until the 13th March 2020 that a decision was made to suspend one of the largest domestic football leagues in the world; the English Premier League, with the last match being played on the 9th March. 

The decision to suspend the EPL came after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tested positive for Coronavirus following a fixture that had taken place two weeks earlier between Arsenal and Greek professional side Olympiacos, whereby the club’s owner; Evangelos Marinakis, had tested positive for the deadly virus.

Football In The Americas

Football associations in the Americas were praised for acting swiftly as the suspension news from European officials travelled to both North and South America.

Within hours the CONCACAF Champions League was suspended for a minimum of thirty days, but later indefinitely with a restart period to be confirmed. 

In addition, the top professional soccer league in the United States and Canada; Major League Soccer was also put on hold along with the National Women’s Soccer League, which had not yet started, but was due to commence on the 18th April 2020.

South of the western hemisphere, FIFA issued postponement dates for qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is due to be hosted in Qatar, the dates were rescheduled pending confirmation.

International Football Postponed

In the seven days that followed postponements throughout the Americas, the South American Football Confederation, also known as CONMEBOL, suspended the oldest international football competition contested between national teams from CONMEBOL, Copa América, until the year 2021.

In addition, the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship organised by UEFA, also known as Euro 2020, has been suspended for twelve months and is to be held in June through July 2021. 

Initially, competition officials stated that the tournament would keep its name of Euro 2020, but later back-tracked on a public social media statement, which suggests that the cup competition may be renamed in the near future.

Euro 2020 was set to be a special edition of the historic competition involving twenty-four countries taking place across twelve different cities. 

UEFA announced the suspension, stating that the health of everyone involved in the game is priority and that no additional pressure on national public services was to be added by hosting the competition this year, despite reports suggesting that the worst of the pandemic should be over by the official start date. The administrative body also said that by suspending the competition it would give domestic leagues time to restart and finish the 2019-2020 seasons.

Cases Of COVID-19 In Football

Despite the Real Madrid first team being placed in quarantine, the earliest confirmed case of COVID-19 in football was professional football club based in Nottinghamshire, England: Nottingham Forest and Greek professional football club Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis on the 11th March 2020. Marinakis recovered from the disease within a period of two weeks and a second follow-up test for Coronavirus tested negative.

Hours after the COVID-19 confirmation of Evangelos Marinakis, Italy national team and Juventus player Daniele Rugani tested positive for virus, which is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 and can bring symptoms of fatigue, muscle pain, diarrhea, sore throat, loss of smell and abdominal pain. However, Rugani did not show any signs of symptoms, but the complete Juventus first team were put in to self isolation.

The following days on March 12th and 13th, a few other players had also tested positive for the disease, including Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, around a quarter of the Valencia first team, four unnamed Everton and Leicester City players and Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s head coach.

Effects On Football Betting

Without a doubt, one of the largest gambling markets in the world is the football betting industry. From Australia’s A-League and the Chinese Super League to Germany’s Bundesliga and England’s Premier League, millions of currency is wagered on football matches almost every day of the week.

Along with horse racing, football makes up three-quarters of the entire sports betting markets in many developed nations, but the postponement of domestic leagues around the world along with the 12 month suspension of international competitions, has resulted in sportsbooks seeing record low numbers as gambling activity plummets.

In the absence of global football, bookmakers around the world are introducing more virtual events so that punters can place bets on CGI versions of popular and fictional football matches.

However, despite the lack of football betting options, government ministers in a number of countries are fearing a rise in problem gambling as citizens may turn to betting during lock-down, particularly on virtual events that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, rare and typically unpopular football competition’s such as Belarusian Premier League, which is still running despite COVID-19, is seeing a rise on wagers that would have once never been placed.

In light of this, government ministers in the United Kingdom and other countries are calling for restrictions to be placed on not only football betting, but gambling in general, such as a maximum capped amount per day and limits on betting advertising materials to try and entice punters towards other betting markets such as virtual football.

In addition, due to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain, whereby confirmed infections had risen beyond one-hundred and thirty thousand with more than thirteen-thousand deaths, the Spanish government had implemented a number of measures to ban advertising for online gambling, including discouraging football betting. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has reportedly donated over one million Euro to help Spain tackle the pandemic before the Spanish professional football manager and former player’s 82 year old mother died after contracting COVID-19.

Furthermore, gambling authorities in Malta and other parts of Europe, who issue licenses for betting and gambling in its jurisdictions, were warning operators to avoid mentioning Coronavirus in promotional materials.

Return Of Football

Despite multiple postponements of major football matches and competitions, it is not yet clear when the footballing world will resume and return to business as usual. Previously, dates of April 13th and 27th had been mentioned in temporary suspension plans, but many of these have now been scrapped with resumption dates to be confirmed upon the advice and guidance of the World Health Organisation – a United Nations agency that is responsible for the public health of countries working with the United Nations.

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