Already 2020 has been a wild ride. But who seriously saw Wayne Rooney of Derby County being the voice of reason on a global pandemic? Not us, that's for sure. Yet England and Manchester United‘s leading scorer might have spoken the most sense on COVID-19 and its impact on the football calendar.
It goes without saying, of course, that the problems football faces pale into insignificance when facing up to the enormity of this rapidly-spreading virus. But it will resume at some point and with issues galore to resolve.
Writing in his column in the Sunday Times, Rooney said: “The rest of sport – tennis, Formula 1, rugby, golf, football in other countries – was closing down and we were being told to carry on.
“I know how I feel. If any of my family get infected through me because I've had to play when it's not safe, and they get seriously ill, I'd have to think hard about ever playing again. I would never forgive the authorities.”
The former England captain continued: “We're happy to play until September if the season extends to then, if that's how it has to be. That's our job.
“As long as we know we're safe to play and it's a safe environment for spectators, we'll play.
“The next World Cup is in November and December 2022, so you could actually use this situation as an opportunity and say we're going to finish the 2019/20 season later this year, then prepare for 2022 by having the next two seasons starting in winter.”
Whatever your view on the time it took for elite football in the UK to be postponed – and whether the National Leagues should have followed suit too – one thing is for sure: there are more questions than answers for the game's governing bodies and authorities to answer in the coming weeks or months as the reality of COVID-19 and its far-reaching tentacles hits home.
- How and when will the 2019/20 season be concluded?
- Will the 2019/20 campaign even be concluded or are we facing an abandonment?
- Will crowds be allowed to return to matches if and when the domestic season resumes, or will the risk be deemed too great?
- If the season runs behind June 30, what happens to free agents?
- What happens to the UEFA Champions League and Europa League?
- How on earth can the first pan-European Euros go ahead now?
- Will the European Championships move?
That is a serious list of issues, all of which need some kind of resolution. Yet the upside to all this is it could force football to look at some of its own problems. Things it would not otherwise have had the introspective capacity to face up to.
The football calendar has come under greater scrutiny than ever this season. Jürgen Klopp has led that crusade, boycotting Liverpool‘s FA Cup replay with Shrewsbury Town as the fixture fell during the Premier League‘s inaugural winter break.
That was, of course, a winter break that was hardly a winter break. The longest any top-flight team got was 15 days without a game as the fixtures were simply spread over two weekends. If COVID-19 has done anything for football, it's given elite players a long-overdue rest,
Muddying the waters further is the proposed expansion of the FIFA Club World Cup, due to take place in China – will that even be viable? – next summer with 24 teams from six continents competing. Already a logistical headache for European teams thanks to its placement in December, moving the tournament to the summer surely means a fight between UEFA and FIFA is imminent.
Ultimately, all parties want their slice of the pie and no-one is prepared to give an inch. Postponing the 2020 European Championships would give European leagues the latitude to play into the summer in order to complete league seasons – surely a more viable alternative, even if fans were barred from attending, than facing up to the inevitable lawsuits if the season was ended tomorrow.
Completing the season, whenever it happens and under whatever circumstances, has to be of paramount importance. Having play-offs to decide who goes up or down is not fair on competing teams who will have faced different opponents. For example, if Aston Villa were relegated from the Premier League having played all of the top six twice but West Ham United survive with a hypothetically ‘easier' fixture list to date completed, the Villans would have every right to feel aggrieved.
Nor is sending Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion up to complete a 22-team Premier League. It's not particularly practical given the likelihood of fixture congestion, either.
UEFA will want its flagship international tournament to go ahead at some point, and it should. But, realistically, there might not be time to fit it into the calendar. If clubs are expected to have pre-season before starting the 2020/21 campaign then where does it fit in?
The numerous unknowns created by COVID-19 are not conducive to planning a major international tournament, either in terms of where it will take place or when. To that end, surely the priority for football's governing bodies is completing outstanding competitions, rather than beginning a new one?
The answer to almost all of these questions is unknown. But this is a time of opportunity. For example, suspending the League Cup would open up midweeks for teams to play league matches, thus shortening the season. The same with FA Cup replays which have long been a bone of contention.
Something else which has been mooted as an option in light of COVID-19 is televising all games, Netflix style, so supporters do not have to go to the pub and risk infection in a crowd. The exact manifestation of this option has not been made clear but, again, this feels like an opportunity to try something the game would otherwise have resisted.
Football is remarkably resistant to change. That it could take a global pandemic like COVID-19 to change its ways is incredibly damning.