UEFA's ongoing attempts to wade through the coronavirus pandemic and emerge with a solution is starting to take on a familiar refrain for many in the workplace: meetings to set the agenda for future meetings.
Amid the latest batch, though, came what looks to be a significant development. UEFA video conferenced with its 55 member associations on Tuesday, and whereas its previous stance on domestic leagues and cup competitions was that it was premature to discuss not completing them and abandoning them, the feeling less than three weeks later appears to be that it is now a realistic option.
Consider the joint statement from UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, European Club Association chairman Andrea Agnelli and European Leagues president Lars-Christer Olsson from earlier this month: “We are confident that football can restart in the months to come—with conditions that will be dictated by public authorities—and believe that any decision of abandoning domestic competitions is, at this stage, premature and not justified.
“It is of paramount importance that even a disruptive event like this epidemic does not prevent our competitions from being decided on the field, in accordance with their rules and that all sporting titles are awarded on the basis of results. As responsible leaders in our sport, this is what we must ensure, until the last possibility exists and whilst planning, operational and regulatory solutions are available.”
Now contrast that with Tuesday's statement from UEFA, which reads like the beginning of a retreat: "There was a strong recommendation given to finish domestic top division and cup competitions, but some special cases will be heard once guidelines concerning participation to European competitions–in case of a cancelled league–have been developed."
With Belgium already having taken the decision to end its top-flight season as is and Scotland, farcically, doing the same at the tiers below the top flight, UEFA isn't going to get its initial wish, and it seems to have acknowledged that while leaving the door open for other nations and leagues to follow Belgium and Scotland's lead. UEFA's biggest issue still to sort is determining how to award places in European competitions for those leagues that do call things now as opposed to the ones that wind up playing on. Nothing will be decided until Thursday's UEFA executive committee meeting at the earliest–and the process could be pushed even more as the pandemic fallout continues to develop at a rapid pace.
One of UEFA's biggest problems is that it can't set a uniform mandate across its member associations when each one has to handle the coronavirus problem in its own way and adhere to the advice of its own public health officials and governments. Some are being more cautious than others, some aren't being cautious at all (hello, Belarus!) and ultimately it's still too early to take any final decisions.
A quick lap around the top five European leagues illustrates the problem with making any grand proclamations. In England, the Premier League remains in a holding pattern despite its wish to play on, while in Italy, Serie A's 20 clubs voted unanimously to finish the season but only "if the government allows it to happen." In France, there are differing opinions among stakeholders about whether play should resume, while in Spain, its federation has proposed awarding Champions League places based on the current standings–clearly the cleanest option available–if the season were to end prematurely, which remains an option despite it clearly being the costliest one on the table.
In Germany, there's a movement to get things going behind closed doors as soon as May 9, but there still needs to be proper sign-off from the ruling parties. Securing regular testing for the virus appears to be one of the prerequisites, but that opens up a whole other set of arguments about whether soccer players and athletes should be the top priority for receiving such measures. German federation president Fritz Keller told Kicker on Monday that "there will be no use by sportspeople of testing capacity which would be missed elsewhere," though that seems difficult to back up with actions.
All of the moving parts and variables outside of UEFA's control make the organization's softening of its stance seem practical–while its apparent desire to hold the Champions League final at the end of August seems as impractical as ever with the remaining participating associations all on different pages. Nothing is decided for good yet, though, and the decision-making process continues to evolve during these extraordinary and atypical times. Things are where they currently are–until the next meeting.