Sports is not a priority right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has rightfully taken its place. It is important that you follow the instructions of your local government and health institutions: even if you think that COVID-19 will not affect you, you could spread it to someone who would be affected by it. This article does not seek to belittle the ongoing pandemic, but while most of us are cooped up at home, it’s nice to be able to talk about football.
At the time of writing, football worldwide has faded in the background. On Tuesday afternoon, UEFA suspended European competitions and made the unprecedented move to postpone EURO 2020 to next year in the hope that the current season can conclude. France, like most of the world, is battling a pandemic that is straining health resources and personnel.
Amid all the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, the future of the 2019/2020 Ligue 1 season, like football elsewhere, has clouded over. For a few days, weeks or months, football was set to become secondary. That changed with jarring effect over the weekend, when the pandemic gave way to a polemic.
As these things usually go, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas was in the middle of it. The veteran emerged on Twitter—while observing France’s state-encouraged lockdown, we hope—with a proposition that was always going to inspire conflict. Timing and intentions apart, Aulas tackled an issue that will have to be resolved at some point in the future: how will the world of football prepare for next season?
Aulas suggested to use last season’s standings to determine who wins the title and qualify for European competitions. That statement was met with two reactions. First, scandal, as it sounded like an insensitive comment while France faces a cataclysmic event that French president Emmanuel Macron likened to war. Second, it was perceived as an opportunistic maneuver by a president of a club that, as things stand, would not qualify for European competitions through the league standings.
Later, Aulas clarified that the priority should be seeing the season through. He also offered an alternative to using the accumulated league tables over the past three or five seasons to determine the final league table. That, too, came off as opportunistic: both of his options place Lyon in Champions League berths.
Opportunism is a valid criticism, but there is precious little to go on if the season really had to be suspended indefinitely. In Tuesday’s meeting, UEFA’s federations committed to conclude to season by the end of June, but even that decision comes with a substantial clause: “should the situation improve and resuming playing be appropriate and prudent enough.” The resolution keeps the door open for the season finishing even later.
Today, the possibility of the season stretching beyond June is not unimaginable; France is still introducing more mitigation measures to slow down the spread of COVID-19. This comes more than a week after Italy took even more drastic measures, where the crisis has not subsided. The pandemic could stretch on for weeks or months, after which the question of what happens with football will have to be answered.
The only alternative was put forward by Jacques-Henri Eyraud, Marseille’s president: freeze the league standings. Rennes’ president Jacques Delanoë, vehemently against Aulas’ proposition, has already sided with Eyraud. They, too, would be the opportunistic beneficiaries because the decision would automatically qualify them for the next edition of the Champions League.
At face value, freezing the league tables seems the fairest approach, but even that fairness is tainted with injustice. In fact, the proposed routes—all proposed by the league leaders—fail to account for what happens with the teams that trail them. How does each alternative fail the Ligue 1 and its teams?
Option 1: Using Last Season’s Standings
The primary advantage of using last season’s standings to determine the league is that it is a complete and generally a low-effort solution, regardless of how COVID-19 plays out. Its fatal flaw: it completely effaces the current season. PSG would still be crowned champions, but everyone else would be affected, whether positively or negatively.
Teams like Rennes and Marseille missed out on Champions League qualification last season, but stand on the podium at this stage in the current season. Reims and Nice too would fail to qualify for the Europa League, unlike if Eyraud’s proposition had to be adopted.
Conversely, Saint-Étienne would qualify for the Europa League, even though their form has spiralled. It is not inconceivable that Lyon’s Rhône neighbors, currently 17th, would be relegated to Ligue 2 if the 2019/2020 season had to finish.
Neither does this alternative propose how the relegation battle would be fought out. Last season’s relegated teams—Caen and Guingamp—obviously cannot be relegated again, and neither can the promoted teams—Metz and Nîmes—be promoted again. Eyraud’s suggestion to freeze the league standings avoids this problem, but eliminates the fixture equity.
Option 2: Using Historic Rankings
Aulas’ second proposition—using historic rankings—is a natural extension to using the standings from last season. The 5-year standings coincides with how UEFA computes the club coefficients and puts forward the teams that could contribute most to France’s UEFA coefficients.
In this scenario, Paris Saint-Germain would naturally still be crowned champions. Thanks to their consistent performances in the past seasons, Nice and Lille would both qualify to the Europa League, just like they would with their current positions. Everything else is as controversial as Aulas’ first solution.
Most conspicuously, Lyon and Monaco would overtake other teams to clinch Champions League qualification. The most conspicuous victim is also the primary reason why this debate has become so heated: Marseille, who would have to contend with a Europa League spot and its meagre income. The drop in income would deliver a substantial hit to the Mediterranean club at a time of financial woes, as Jean-Michel Aulas never misses the opportunity to remind us.
Lille’s predicament is similarly dire. They go from Champions League contender to having to go through play-offs to even qualify for the Europa League. Rennes would not even qualify for the Europa League, which could make it harder to hold on to their prized asset: Eduardo Camavinga. Therefore it is highly unlikely that either club would readily give up the fight for Champions League football.
Option 3: Using the Current League Standings
Eyraud’s suggestion to freeze the league ensures that teams on a good run benefit from it. This factor alone makes this option an apparently better option than either of Aulas’ proposals, but it is also just as opportunistic. So is Delanoë’s swift agreement.
As things stand, Paris Saint-Germain would be crowned champions, Marseille and Rennes would qualify for Champions League, and Lille would qualify for the Europa League. Assuming that the table does not change, which is not likely, that is where all certainty fades away.
The fifth and sixth spots do not ensure Europa League qualification yet. The Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue winners both qualify for the Europa League. In both cases, the trophies can be lifted by teams that are not well-placed in the league—Saint-Étienne and Lyon respectively—if they defeat Paris Saint-Germain.
Even if Paris Saint-Germain win just one cup, then the 5th place would become a European place. In that case, no less than 11 teams would be within 7 points of qualifying for the Europa League.
Moreover, stopping the league prematurely does not give every team equal opportunities. That is an important consideration in a dense Ligue 1 table. The most pronounced inequality is the case of Strasbourg and Paris Saint-Germain, who have played one match fewer than every other team. If Strasbourg upset the Parisians, they could leapfrog 6 places—from 11th to 5th—and potentially clinch Europa League qualification.
Because of this discrepancy, the last full matchday, which happens to be matchday 27, could be considered to freeze the standings, as hypothesized in Italy. Even then, the standings would shift considerably. In-between matchdays 27 and 28, Reims and Nice pipped Lyon’s and Montpellier’s 5th and 6th places.
In a league table where one or two matchdays can bring such changes, even so late in the season, calendar equity would inevitably become a point of contention if Eyraud’s plan had to be adopted. For example, only 7 points separate 2nd-placed Marseille from 4th-placed Lille, but their calendars are wildly different. Whereas Marseille still have to play 6 out of 10 teams in the current top 10, Lille and Rennes only have to play 4 opponents in the upper half of the table.
A similar situation presents itself in the relegation fight. A Saint-Étienne squad riddled with infighting finds itself 17th, 3 points above the play-off spot. They too have more difficult fixtures than Nîmes in 18th place. In Scotland a similar scenario has pushed Hearts to threaten legal action if the league table is frozen, which would lead to their relegation.
The good news for French football is that this is not a problem unique to France. Other leagues have been considering other ways to conclude their leagues, from play-offs to playing in the Summer.
Several more issues that could complicate the decision loom in the distance. What happens when player contracts and loans run out at the end of June? Would teams be able to register players if the transfer window has opened while the league is still ongoing?
The worst that could happen is that the league doesn’t finish on the pitch. There will be those who benefit and those who will be wronged by any decisions that will have to be made. It would be catastrophic for those who are fighting for promotion and relegation. It’s impossible for it to end well. What we need is to finish the season. If we want to avoid non-sporting decisions, it’s the only possible outcome.Gérard Lopez on Team Duga – 16 March, 2020
The issue is far too complex to solve by the media or with Twitter tirades. Most likely, there is no fairer solution than trying to finish the season at all cost; and perhaps no one has put that quite as succinctly as Gérard Lopez. The Lille president spoke out in favour of finishing the league in some way or another because any other option will leave some aggrieved.
Meanwhile, the days continue to tick down. As the pandemic stretches, the course of time might decide on behalf of the decision-makers, and perhaps at some point, bad alternatives might become the only alternatives.