Coronavirus vs Euro 2020: Why summer tournament is in grave danger of being cancelled
“Let’s try to be optimistic.”
That was the message of UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin when he spoke at his organisation’s annual congress in Amsterdam at the beginning of March 2020.
He was referring to the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, the spread of which threatens to have a severe impact on Euro 2020 - UEFA’s flagship international tournament - this summer.
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“We are dealing with it and we are confident we can deal with it,” Ceferin said.
“You don’t know how many big concerns we have: we have security concerns, political instability and one is also the virus. Let’s try to be optimistic, not think about dark scenarios – there’s time for that later.”
However, the virus has already had an effect on football, with the scheduling of a number of top-level competitions thrown into disarray due to postponements, while other sporting events are also in doubt.
Indeed, a global pandemic has been declared, so the time for UEFA and others to at least think about “dark scenarios” is perhaps now, not later.
- Will Euro 2020 be cancelled?
- Why is Euro 2020 at risk of cancellation?
- Which Euro 2020 host nations are affected by coronavirus?
- Are other major sporting events being cancelled?
It is unclear whether Euro 2020 will be cancelled or not, but UEFA will be forced into making a decision on the matter, depending on how efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 play out across Europe.
A meeting is scheduled to take place on March 17 involving all 55 member associations in which the topic of Euro 2020 will be discussed, as well as domestic and continental club tournaments.
On the same day that the meeting was announced, on March 12, a UEFA source told Goal that "there is no reason to change anything in the time schedule."
That echoed the positive noises that the tournament would go ahead, with the organisation's general secretary Theodore Theodoridis explaining that they would deal with it on a case-by-case basis.
"We do not want to speculate what will happen in three or four months' time," Theodoridis told UEFA's annual congress in March.
"We are addressing the situation already by making contact with the World Health Organisation [WHO] and different governments as well.
"We have acknowledged the situation but we do not want to over-react. We have created a line of contact."
With the virus continuing to spread, however, it is highly likely that the tournament will be impacted, though it is something that has to be monitored on a week-to-week basis.
Professor Ivan Perry, head of the School of Epidemiology and Public Health in University College Cork in Ireland, suggested that a decision could potentially be made on Euro 2020 in the middle of May, depending on how things develop.
"These decisions depend on a range of different factors," Professor Perry told Goal at the beginning of March. "Anyone who would speak with confidence about what we're going to do next month, never mind the middle of May or June, you can be pretty sure that they're not close to the fine-grained detail of the response to the epidemic."
He added: "This is genuinely a novel virus, so we're actually learning more and more about the virus and how transmittable it is in symptomatic cases. We learn more information about that every day, but there's still much that we don't know."
The worst-case Euro 2020 scenario is that UEFA is left with no choice but to cancel the tournament completely. This would only transpire if authorities across Europe were unable to minimise the spread of Covid-19.
Such an outcome would affect thousands of people, with an entire network of planned interactions thrown into disorder, creating a hefty financial knock-on effect.
Not only would the teams themselves have their plans disrupted, but so too would the supporters who intended to travel to the games, the businesses who planned for an influx of people to their cities and so on.
Postponing the Euros until a later date, such as June-July 2021, would have fewer financial ramifications but still leave many fans and businesses out of pocket, and cause disruption to the football schedule next year.
The women's Euros is scheduled to take place in England from July 11-August 1, 2021. Back-to-back UEFA tournaments, where overlapping would seem likely, would be a logistical headache. But at least this way much of the investment and income for the upcoming Euros would just be delayed by a year, rather than abandoned entirely.
A better-case scenario would see the games go ahead, but with restrictions.
For example, it could be that games will be played behind closed doors, as has already happened with certain competitions in many countries that have been affected by Covid-19.
Ensuring the games are played, albeit without a rapt audience in the stadiums, would not be ideal, but it would at least allow the tournament to be fulfilled - keeping UEFA, TV broadcasters and football fans happy.
UEFA is preparing for all eight Euro 2020 play-off ties to go ahead as normal at the end of March.
However, it has been suggested that some of the Euro 2020 play-off games may have to be played behind closed doors and the European governing body is understood to be ready for such an eventuality.
"One has to be proportionate," says Professor Perry. "It would be disproportionate, perhaps, at the moment to close down the London Underground based on the knowledge we currently have.
"Whereas you could argue that it wouldn't be disproportionate that a match might be played in an empty stadium - it could be reasonable and proportionate - given where we are at the moment.
"The situation changes day-to-day and week-to-week basis and it has to be reappraised on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis."
Euro 2020 is at risk of cancellation because governments across the world are fighting to minimise the spread of Covid-19 and reduce the prospect of fatalities.
Staging a major sporting event across 12 cities in 12 different nations, as is the case with this edition of the UEFA European Championship, would not be conducive to those efforts, particularly if things are not brought under control.
"The first phase of the management of the epidemic is called 'containment', where the focus is on minimising the spread of the index cases," explains Professor Perry.
"Then there is a point where there is some spread within the community and you try to delay the peak of the epidemic to get as much time to be prepared.
"The worst-case scenario is where you have a full scale pandemic and that stage is called 'mitigation', where you're looking after relatively large numbers of sick people. Most people will still be looked after at home, because they'll only have mild illness, but you'll have a small number who will need care at the hospital."
The outbreak began in December 2019 in the Hubei region of China and, by mid-March, it has spread across five continents, infecting over 150,000 people, with over 5,000 deaths worldwide.
Mass movement and mass gathering of people can contribute to a potentially dangerous upsurge in infections since people are at close quarters for prolonged periods of time.
Euro 2020 would ordinarily see hundreds of thousands of people travelling to and from countries to watch games, gathering in stadiums as well as public spaces, bars and restaurants.
"The concerns you'd have relate to the fact that if you have thousands of people, some of them will be asymptomatic carriers of the virus," says Professor Perry.
"Those people will spread the virus through a crowd, who will then perhaps go home and transmit the virus to someone in their environment who is particularly vulnerable."
Even if UEFA wanted the tournament to go ahead without fans in stadia, there's a chance players will refuse to play at the risk of endangering their health and the health of their families.
Italy has been Europe's worst-hit country so far and, following a quarantine of a quarter of Italy's population on Saturday March 7, Serie A's players union threatened to push for a strike due to "grave threat to health" concerns.
In fact, a number of footballers playing in Serie A for some of Italy's top clubs were subsequently confirmed to have contracted the virus, while cases have also been confirmed at clubs in the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga.
Given the scale of the pandemic now - a global emergency - clubs have been given the green light from FIFA to prevent their players from accepting international call-ups, which could be a source of disquiet for UEFA. Indeed, the Italian FA (FIGC) has called for a postponement.
Cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in all 12 of the Euro 2020 host nations.
Italy is the worst-affected country in Europe, which is particularly bad news for UEFA, considering that Rome is due to host the tournament's opening game between Turkey and Italy on June 12.
In fact, Italy has been placed on lockdown, with the Italian government making it mandatory for citizens to remain at home while they attempt to deal with the crisis. Spain followed Italy's lead in enacting a shutdown, while Ireland has mandated that pubs, restaurants and clubs be closed temporarily as part of a partial shutdown.
Germany has also seen a jump in the number of people infected by the virus, while Spain, Netherlands and the UK have reported hundreds of infections too.
Denmark, Azerbaijan, Ireland, Russia, Romania and Hungary have relatively lower numbers of recorded cases as of mid-March.
On March 12, the Irish government announced that a partial shutdown - closing of schools, nurseries and universities, as well as some limits on public gatherings - would be enforced until March 29.
Euro 2020 is not the only major sporting event in 2020 under threat of cancellation due to coronavirus concerns.
The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo is another large-scale tournament which involves global participation - from competitors, sports fans, media organisations and so on - which has been queried.
It is scheduled to begin six weeks later than Euro 2020, though, towards the end of July, which means that there is slightly more time available to organisers to set about planning for all potential outcomes.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been defiant in its assessment of the situation, maintaining that the Olympics will not be cancelled.
IOC president Thomas Bach said in March that the committee "will not get caught in speculation" with regard to what might happen in the intervening months, noting that it is a case of 'business as usual'.
However, there has evidently been some consideration of the possibility of cancellation or postponement.
The Torch Relay, which is a powerfully symbolic event for the Olympics, has been scaled back in response to the spread of the virus, while Japan's Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto has suggested the events could be held later in the year.
Some of the major events that have been cancelled or postponed include Six Nations rugby matches involving Italy, the World Athletics Indoor Championships and Formula 1's Chinese Grand Prix.
The dates of the Rome marathon and Paris marathon have also been moved back to later in 2020.