Coronavirus: When will La Liga return?

Coronavirus: When will football return?

With Europe gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, the return of football still feels like a distant prospect. Of the big five leagues, only the Bundesliga appears to have any kind of clear path for a potential return with 9th May being muted as a restart date. Germany has handled the COVID-19 outbreak well however Italy, Spain, France and the UK all rank in the top five countries for coronavirus deaths and while all four countries appear to now be over the peak, the road back to ‘normality’ looks like it will be a long one. On this page, we’ll look at some possible scenarios for when football might return and how that might play out in La Liga and other competitions.

Note that the picture is continuously shifting. This article was written on 23rd April. Follow our main coronavirus developments page for the latest updates related to Spanish football.


Coronavirus: How & when will football return?


When will La Liga be back?


While the major European leagues and clubs virtually all remain committed to the idea of resuming and eventually completing the 2019/20 season during the summer months, they are all ultimately at the hands of the virus. If the COVID-19 situation doesn’t improve as quickly as some are hoping, it may become virtually impossible to complete the current season without running into the next one.

The latest situation in La Liga is that clubs have been provisionally given approval to return to training. The Spanish league and RFEF have come to a rare agreement on that, however this move is subject to ‘subject to the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and to the decisions taken by the Ministry of Health’ according to a joint statement earlier this week.

They are currently working around the notion of having two weeks of individual training followed by two weeks of group training (limited to separate groups of 8) before any matches are played. This would take place under strict conditions, with regular testing and may involve players being enforced to adhere to a separate lockdown over this period.

This in itself would be highly controversial given many front-line medical workers in Spain have not yet been tested for COVID-19. Players meanwhile may also resent being separated from their families and having restrictions placed on their movement during a period when the lockdown is most likely going to ease for everybody else. At the moment, this is merely a plan the league is working around and they are still in the process of consulting with the clubs, UEFA, other leagues around Europe as well as medical professionals.

La Liga president Javier Tebas also recently informed the media that they view 28th May as the earliest possible restart date. Given the proposed four week training timetable, clubs would need to return to training next week for this to be feasible which currently looks unlikely given Spain is still in a state of lockdown with several hundred daily deaths still being recorded.

Tebas has also cited 6th June and 28th June as other potential dates for La Liga to restart which look more realistic. The latest reports also indicate that UEFA is now planning to conclude the Europa League and Champions League exclusively in August and is keen for all domestic leagues to have finished by the end of July.


How will football return? – Possible Scenarios for La Liga


The only thing that does seem certain, is that if the 2019/20 campaign does get finished, it will be entirely behind closed doors with bans on mass gatherings expected to remain in place across Europe, potentially for the rest of 2020. The thought of everything from title deciders to relegation six-pointers and European finals being played with no fans means that when football does come back, it will be like nothing we’ve seen before.

La Liga, along with other major European leagues, appear to have a range of options from here but none of them are ideal or without potential problems. Below we will run through four possible scenarios for how football might return in Spain.

The first two work on the assumption that we are able to stage some football in the coming months. The latter two look at what might happen if things do not improve with COVID-19 and we are unable to finish the 2019/20 season.

Option 1 – The season gets completed over the summer, 2020/21 follows soon after

UEFA has announced the postponement of Euro 2020 which gives domestic leagues greater leeway to complete their seasons. This could see La Liga ultimately get completed over the summer months if the coronavirus crisis does ease, almost certainly behind closed doors, with strict testing of players and officials. Playing out the current campaign is still the ideal scenario for just about all parties and La Liga and its club are, publicly at least, committed to this option.

Positives

It should ensure that clubs keep that vital TV revenue and it would also prevent the conundrum of deciding whether or not to award titles, European places and relegate/promote clubs in the event of an unfinished season. Providing football can get up and running by at least the end of June, it should be just about possible to complete this season and then potentially start the next one almost immediately, thus getting back to a normal calendar for the 2020/21 season.

Potential Problems

There are several significant problems with this plan.

Even if they are kept under strict conditions, there is still a risk of more players testing positive for COVID-19 and this could lead to whole teams again being forced into quarantine (as we have seen with the likes of Real Madrid and Valencia already). Given plans for summer football are likely to include teams playing at least twice per week in a rush to get the fixtures played, any period of quarantine could have a serious knock-on effect meaning further delays are possible even once the action does restart, potentially creating an even bigger mess.

This scenario would also most likely only take place with mass testing of players and staff at all clubs. This brings its own ethical questions with La Liga clubs having previously refused to accept testing kits, stating that other people in greater need should have access to them.

There are plenty of further complications too including that of the soaring temperatures we see across Spain during the summer months. Cities such as Madrid and Seville regularly see highs of well in excess of 40 degrees during July and August which is far from ideal playing conditions for football.

Almost every single club in Spain also has players that are out of contract in June (more on this, further down the page) which creates a problem should the season run past that date, which it almost certainly will now.

Can the problems be solved?

Having much later kick-off times is one potential solution to the heat question and Spain does these days stage league games in August anyway. There may though be an argument to just stage matches in a cooler part of the country given any home advantage will presumably be lost given games are expected to take place without supporters present. Real Madrid have already said they may play games at their training ground due to redevelopment works that are taking place at the Bernabeu this summer.

The issue of dealing with players testing positive is one that may not go away any time soon though. While young, professional athletes should in theory be the ones best equipped to deal with the effects of coronavirus, it’s hard to see how games could possibly go ahead in the event of more players catching it.

Ideally testing will have been made available to all medical professionals in Spain by the time we get around to the point of football returning. That may at least remove the ethical question but right now it’s impossible to justify why footballers are more deserving of tests than those risking their lives on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19.

Option 2 – A streamlined play-off system to decide the key battles

If the spread of coronavirus doesn’t slow down as quickly as we are all hoping for, we may end up with a scenario where there simply isn’t enough time to finish this season in full. One solution may be to introduce some kind of streamlined play-off system to decide the key battles. This could potentially take place behind closed doors in a single neutral stadium, again with strict testing of all players and staff involved.

To get a bit speculative, we could even see a one-off Clásico to determine the league winners, maybe with a draw seeing Barcelona crowned champions and Real Madrid needing to win (to overhaul the 2 point deficit). With just two points separating 3rd and 6th, a play-off structure to determine the next two Champions League qualifiers may also be something that the clubs involved will begrudgingly be willing to accept. Some kind of mini-tournament could also take place involving the sides at the bottom of the Primera and the top of the Segunda to figure out promotion and relegation.

Positives

UEFA has been keen to stress that European places should be awarded according to ‘sporting merit’ and while not ideal, this would fulfil that criteria. Finishing the season and deciding all the key battles on the pitch would certainly be preferable to just ending the campaign now. It would also create a genuinely exciting end to the campaign in contrast to hundreds of games (across all the leagues) played without fans.

Potential Problems

Coming up with a play-off structure that is agreeable to all parties will be challenging to say the least. Clubs will obviously all have their own vested interests and those currently inside the Champions League positions or just above the relegation zone won’t be easily convinced by any system that reduces the chances of them achieving their respective goals.

There would also be logistical challenges with regards to selecting venues and getting the matches played in a safe environment while this scenario would also see a large reduction in TV games which may result in clubs not receiving their full TV revenues for the 2019/20 season.

Can the problems be solved?

To be clear, this is firmly a back-up plan in the event that the first option is not possible. The passing of more time without football, may make clubs more willing to compromise and more eager to get back to some kind of football which should at least appease the TV companies to some extent.

The logistical challenges will largely be dependent on how the spread of the virus develops and what government restrictions remain in place.

Option 3 – The 2019/20 season is made null and void, 2020/21 season starts when possible

If things don’t improve, one option is to simply rule this current league season null and void. That would mean no team would be declared champions and no teams would be relegated and we’d start next season again with exactly the same teams in the Primera and Segunda.

Positives

With the top flight title race and relegation battles currently very finely poised, this wouldn’t be quite as controversial as it is in England for example where Liverpool are currently 25 points clear at the top. It would also limit or potentially prevent any disruption to next season which may end up being delayed or even shortened, should the current campaign be played out to its full conclusion. From a logistical point of view, this may be the simplest solution with the assumption being that the COVID-19 situation will be much improved by August when the 2020/21 should be able to go start as planned, behind closed doors if necessary.

Potential Problems

This would still be very unpopular with the likes of Cadiz and Zaragoza who currently occupy the top two positions in the Segunda having built up a not insurmountable but still significant advantage on the chasing pack.

The other major problem with voiding the season, is the potential loss of TV revenue. While many clubs have accepted they are set to take a huge hit in terms of lost match-day revenue with fans potentially unable to attend games before 2021, they are banking on TV money to help them through this tough period of lost revenues. Voiding the season could spark all kinds of legal wrangling between the television companies, clubs and La Liga.

Can the problems be solved?

One option would be to increase the number of teams in the top flight to 22 next season and there is precedent for this. The 1995/96 top flight was extended from 20 to 22 teams at the last minute after Sevilla and Celta Vigo were readmitted having initially been punished for failing to make payments to the RFEF with relegation to the Segunda B.

The balance could be readdressed by having four teams go down next season but only two come up and this option may be the best way of appeasing those high-flying Segunda clubs and keeping the struggling top flight ones happy, although inevitably there will still be some winners and losers whatever the verdict. This may also please the TV companies, as they’d have an extra game every weekend, as well as four extra match-days next season to broadcast.

Option 4 – The current positions are taken as final, 2020/21 season starts when possible

A few countries in Europe have already taken the decision to end their seasons by taking the current league positions as final. If this was the case in Spain then Barcelona, who overtook Real Madrid on the last match-day and would be declared champions for the third season running.

At the bottom, Espanyol, Leganes and Mallorca are the current bottom three and would be relegated. In the Segunda, Cadiz and Zaragoza would be promoted while 3rd placed Almeria could be awarded the final promotion position in the eventuality that there is no viable way of staging the play-offs.

Positives

While by no means perfect, this may be seen as the fairest outcome in the event that we are unable to get football up and running again in the next couple of months. It would also prevent a knock-on effect onto next season and teams would be rewarded or punished for their own performances on the pitch – rather than having their results scrapped from the record books. It would also help to solve questions such as who qualifies for Europe, something which would be tricky were the season to be made null and void.

Potential Problems

Clearly numerous teams would be unhappy with this and the likes of the two big Madrid clubs, Valencia and the current bottom three may all feel seriously aggrieved. There may even be some legal challenges with clubs entitled to feel as though the goalposts had been moved during the season. Espanyol for example, who invested heavily in January to bolster their survival push, would be left raging at having relegation enforced on them, with 11 games still to play in the season.

That process of determining Spain’s 2020/21 European participants isn’t as simple as it might have been either. Sevilla would take the 3rd Champions League spot for next season but there would be some debate over the 4th one. Most league tables currently have Real Sociedad in 4th ahead of Getafe on goals scored. However at the end of the season, the tie-breaker reverts to head-to-head and Getafe currently have the advantage having won the only meeting between the two teams so far this term in Donostia. Clearly both sides will be desperate to secure Champions League football and whatever the ruling, one team would be left bitterly unhappy.

Atleti meanwhile in 6th would have to make do with Europa League football and 7th placed Valencia would be made to wait for the result of the Copa del Rey Final to find out whether they get into Europe. That fixture may not be completed until a much later date though, most likely after the start of the 2020/21 Europa League, which creates an added problem.

Can the problems be solved?

Not easily. It would be very difficult to keep all the clubs happy in this case although the league could come up with some kind of redistribution of funds for clubs that just miss out on key positions or go down because of this. Again, not relegating any teams this season and extending the top flight next year may be seen as one possible solution in this situation and may help to prevent things ending up in a court of law. However the European qualification conundrum would be virtually impossible to solve without upsetting some clubs.


What about the Copa del Rey & European competitions?


The Copa del Rey is run by the Royal Spanish Football Federation as opposed to the league and with only one match still to play this season, a positive solution is far more likely. The original Final scheduled for Sevilla on April 18th should have been played by now. With Athletic facing Real Sociedad in the first ever Basque derby Final between the pair, the RFEF and both clubs are very keen to avoid playing this one behind closed doors, so it will most likely just be put off until it is deemed safe to play it with supporters present.

When this will be is currently anyone’s guess. The match could also be moved to a stadium nearer to or even in the Basque Country to avoid any unnecessary travel. The only major complication with the plan to just delay it, even until 2021 if needs be, is that the identity of the cup winner does have an impact on the battle for European places via the league so the RFEF may have to make a ruling on this. Initial reports suggest both Basque clubs would be awarded Europa League places for 2020/21 while 7th place in La Liga (currently Valencia) will miss out.

As for European competitions – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Getafe remain involved. This clearly will be down to UEFA to decide with a switch to single-legged ties or possibly a mini-tournament in a single location both possible options to settle this season’s Champions League and Europa League. They currently are keen to have these competitions played out in August after the completion of the domestic leagues with the added factor of international travel an extra complication.

Given there will almost certainly be no fans present at any of these games, there is a strong argument to just make these games single-legged given any home advantage will be lost. Meanwhile staging the Final in Istanbul also seems illogical given the locations of the remaining teams.


Other La Liga coronavirus implications


Aside from the logistics of getting these matches played and resolving this season’s competitions in a fair and reasonable manner, there are many other potentially serious implications for La Liga and Spanish football as a whole.

Could clubs go bust?

Unquestionably, the loss of match-day income and potentially TV revenue will hit many clubs hard. That’s why all clubs will be desperate to find a solution that involves completing their matches this season.

If that proves impossible due to the coronavirus outbreak, it’s very possible that some clubs will find themselves in severe financial difficulties, struggling to afford to pay their staff. The likes of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have already introduced wage cuts for their players and some have furloughed non-playing staff. With even some of the richest clubs in the world suffering, it’s inevitable that clubs lower down will struggle.

While there have been improvements in recent years, with the introduction of salary caps across Spain’s professional football set-up making a difference, clubs can and do still go bust in Spain even during normal times. Only last season Reus were expelled from the Segunda Division halfway through the campaign for failing to pay their players’ salaries.

The longer the COVID-19 outbreak prevents football from being played, the more likely it is that we will see some clubs going under and potentially having to re-form again in the lower leagues when football does eventually resume. Under Spanish law, clubs are permitted to reduce salaries by 70% during a period of national emergency such as this and some clubs have already taken this option.

The problem is that while this state of emergency may soon lift, there may be a long wait before fans are let back into stadiums and lower down the Spanish football pyramid where there is virtually no TV income, many clubs are hugely dependent on matchday revenues.

Player Contracts

Most players sign contracts that expire at the end of June and there are huge numbers of players in Spain’s top two divisions whose contracts are due to expire on 30th June 2020. The season now looks certain to run well beyond that point which creates an additional complication.

Temporary extensions may be made possible given the extraordinary circumstances but players would have to agree to that. In theory we could see teams losing a number of players before the end of the season and needing youth players to complete their match-day squads if a solution is not reached.

Transfer Window

The transfer window is also due to start on 1st July so any season stretching into that month would also make things interesting. A unilateral agreement to suspend the transfer window is possible but if that doesn’t happen we could see clubs being able to sign and field new players before the conclusion of the 2019/20 season. With most clubs struggling for cash, it’s unlikely we would see too much activity though, particularly given the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1616 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has also lived in Seville and Barcelona and has written extensively about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer.