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It’s Time for Football’s Governing Bodies to Rethink Fixture Congestion

The recent postponement of Euro 2020 shows the frailties of the current, overstuffed football calendar.

Newcastle United v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Last month—and boy, does that now seem like forever ago—I wrote about how football will need to adjust in light of the realities of the climate change era. And, moreover, how the greed driving UEFA, the EFL, the FA, and FIFA among others to consider ever more matches is directly exacerbating said problem.

As has been pointed out by others, this current corona virus pandemic and our reaction to it is a bit like climate change, only on a greatly accelerated timescale. In both cases there was (and still is) the hypocritical and racist attitude that China needed to “do something about it.” There were the denials about how much of a problem it actually was. There were the concerns that any action at all would be too costly to the economy. And then, it is at this point that these two crises have diverged, with the pace of COVID-19’s advance forcing governments to finally begin to take strong, though likely not strong enough, measures to confront it.

The two crises are similar in another way, one that relates directly back to football: an insistence that football must continue on as usual. It’s an insistence that very likely exacerbated the unfolding crisis.

The most obvious example is the 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans who were allowed to travel to Liverpool for the clash at Anfield. It is almost certain that some fans traveling from Spain—currently the country that is the 4th hardest hit by this pandemic—spread the virus across Merseyside. There will be infections, and likely deaths, that come from this one incident that could have been avoided.

Football leagues, eventually, came to their senses. Domestic and international fixtures were called off, perhaps indefinitely.

And Euro 2020—the first to be played without a specific host country, meaning that football fans would be following their national teams across Europe—was postponed for 2021.

Euro 2020 had to be canceled. There was no choice. First of all, the idea of hundreds of thousands of fans traveling nation to nation while the pandemic will still likely be ongoing is the worst possible idea. Secondly, domestic leagues—the lifeblood of football and football culture—need to be completed (whether behind closed doors, or by Twitter connect four).

Crisis aside, all of this points to a larger problem: fixture congestion.

Liverpool, uniquely among European teams, can talk about the problem of fixture congestion. The Reds had to run out youth teams in both domestic competitions because of too many matches, in too short a time frame. The most ridiculous, of course, was when the EFL refused to move a League Cup quarterfinal despite Liverpool playing in the Club World Cup on a different continent less than 24 hours later.

I’ve said it in other articles, and I’ll say it again: no football governing body wants to give up a single fixture in a single tournament for the good of the game.

UEFA, in particular, are taking every opportunity to expand or even create new tournaments. In recent years they’ve expanded the 16-team Euros to 24 teams, they’ve created the Nations League tournament (which no one asked for or understands), they’re discussing the creation of a third continental competition, and finally, they’re close to expanding the Champions League.

It didn’t take much for the whole house of cards that is the footballing calendar to come tumbling down. This is NOT to downplay the crisis, but as of this moment we’re talking about a few weeks—which I realize will likely be longer—where football cannot be played, thereby disrupting the whole system.

A system is only as good as its capacity to deal with adversity. As we saw first hand, the current system isn’t even able to deal with an English team winning the Champions League AND making it to the quarterfinals of it’s second most important domestic competition. That was under perfectly normal circumstances. If this crisis drags on as long as many experts fear, tournaments, cup competitions, and even leagues will have to be postponed and/or canceled.

Obviously this is an extreme case. We’re experiencing a rapid change in our lifestyles rarely seen outside of wartime. But it highlights how we cannot just assume that things will always go as planned. By packing the football calendar with so many tournaments, featuring so many teams, and so many fixtures, it stresses the system and creates the likelihood of a domino effect where everything has to be scrapped.

In football as in life, we’ll need to come out of this crisis with a new set of priorities. We will need to stick together and make sensible decisions. We will need to make decisions that are not simply reacting to a crisis, but long-term ones to hopefully prevent—or at the very least diminish the severity—of future ones.

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