World football’s top medical expert slammed Europe’s major leagues for targeting a mid-May resumption of fixtures, urging them not to put financial considerations before lives.
Michel D’Hooghe, head of FIFA’s medical committee, said the dangers of coronavirus meant there was no justification for such an early restart — even behind closed doors.
Premier League clubs are determined to finish the season in order to avoid a reported £762million in lost TV revenue. Last week, Spanish League boss Javier Tebas, who is part of a working group set up by UEFA, said there was a growing consensus among the big leagues for a mid-May restart.
But D’Hooghe said that was foolhardy. He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘That is absolutely too early. If you start games in mid-May you have to begin training two or three weeks earlier. I don’t have the future in my hands but in my opinion that’s not a good idea. It’s definitely a health risk with the information we have today.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced criticism in some quarters for failing to act fast enough.
‘I can’t judge the behaviour of another country,’ said D’Hooghe who is from Belgium.
‘What I can say is that the coronavirus will not have disappeared by May even if it may have flattened out slightly in some countries more than others. I can’t say when football should realistically start again, it’s an incredibly difficult question because no-one knows when the coronavirus peak will be reached.
‘But even if clubs start playing behind closed doors, they will need to have trained for at least two weeks. That means people coming together in dressing rooms and showers etc and that is precisely what we have to avoid for the moment. Could that endanger lives? With what I know as of today, it’s certainly a risk, yes.’
D’Hooghe said football authorities needed to listen to the medical advice before doing anything rash by putting finances first.
‘You have to strike a balance between medical and economic factors. You have the choice. What do you prefer, health or money? This at the moment is the most acute question.
‘If you start the competition before getting the green light from the medical specialists, that could put economics before health and this is precisely what they should not do. Otherwise we could all be punished.’
Lars-Christer Olsson, who heads the European Leagues, the umbrella body for leagues across the Continent, warned however that medium-sized and smaller clubs could go out of business if the game is shut down for too long.
‘It’s a discussion that is taking place right now,’ he said. ‘At lower level there is no cushion because they are totally dependant on gate receipts to survive. It’s no exaggeration to say some clubs could go out of business if we can’t complete the season and they don’t get sufficient financial support’
Olsson can foresee a rapidly evolving domino effect with individual leagues restarting and completing their seasons at different times.
‘There are likely to be different solutions in different countries because of respective restrictions imposed as a result of corona,’ said Olsson. ‘Obviously whenever they start and finish will then have a knock-on effect in terms of when they can start again next season.’
If that happens, there is a growing likelihood that the format of competitions will have to change both at domestic and European level.
‘If we go on postponing and postponing, there may well have to be alternatives,’ said Olsson. ‘One way might be to turn home and away games into one match.’
Meanwhile, the union representing footballers from across the globe warned clubs not to unilaterally apply swingeing pay cuts in order to stay afloat.