Changing Seasons

This weekend is quite literally* a pivotal one for European football, with 2019-20 season coming to a close and the 2020-21 season opening. Today and Sunday will host the finals of the Europa and Champions Leagues respectively, concluding the reconstituted (and intermingled) single-elimination mini-tournaments that have taken the place of the delayed Euro 2020. But today also saw the opening game of Ligue 1’s–and thus, the new European–2020-21 season. Psychologically, the transition also feels like a new phase of our COVID reality, as a fairly successful re-emergence from lockdown gives way to a less promising future of potential setbacks and struggles to balance re-opening with public safety.

This year’s condensed Champions League has been a glorious culmination of European football’s successful return following the March shutdown. The Bundesliga provided a solid and reliable roadmap in terms of COVID protocols with their early restart–would you expect any less of the Germans?–and with the exception of France, the other major leagues followed with similar positive results. While there were some issues of fitness and focus in performances, as well as aesthetic battles over simulated crowd noise (and crowds), all four leagues managed to produce entertaining and largely seamless results. One need only look across the Atlantic to teams forced to withdraw from competitions or leagues “bubbled” in the most virulent state of the union to recognize how smoothly Europe has handled post-lockdown football.

The revamped Champions League has been an even greater success. The transition from two-legged, home-and-away knockout rounds to an in situ single-elimination tournament has produced a riveting event, with football of the highest quality. The quarterfinal round in particular produced four games of unimpeachable quality, both tactically and purely as a matter of spectacle. Sunday’s finale between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain looks to be a fitting conclusion. And while the Europa League has not quite reached the same heights as UEFA’s flagship tournament, it too has benefitted from the compressed schedule and reduction in surrounding competitions.

The lead-in to the resumption of Ligue 1, however, is raising questions about whether or not this success can be carried into a new season. France initially seemed in the vanguard of sensibility in choosing to cancel their 2019-20 season outright with 10 1/2 games yet to be played. Despite some murmuring about Macron’s connections to Olympique Marseille influencing the forced shutdown, the decision seemed an admirable prioritizing of public health over financial gain. Likewise, the willingness to reschedule the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue finals in recognition of the success other leagues had had with re-opening (and, probably, to give Paris Saint-Germain a bit more preparation for their Champions League run) seemed yet more reasonable flexibility.

The reasonableness of the decision to allow the government-imposed maximum of 5000 (theoretically) socially-distance spectators for these games was less clear, though one could at least argue that testing the return of spectators in a series of one-off matches was preferable to doing so with a full set of fixtures. I will confess that seeing PSG fans in the Tribune Boulogne celebrating a goal in the Coupe de France final did make me feel that Americans might not have an absolute corner on the market for stoopidity.

Sadly, the current signs regarding the new Ligue 1 season seem more analogous to American struggles than to European successes. The French federation apparently reached a different conclusion than I did regarding the fans attending the Coupe finals, and will open the season allowing limited spectators–this despite France experiencing a post-lockdown resurgence of the virus. That’s for the games that can be played, I should say, as French players have been testing positive for COVID at a rate that would make Major League Baseball proud. Today’s original opener, a showcase between Olympique Marseille and Saint-Étienne, had to be postponed because of four positive results in Marseille’s squad. Instead, Girondins de Bourdeaux played Nantes (missing positive-testing captain Abdoulaye Touré) in a nil-nil derby.

While Ligue 1 is undoubtedly hoping to capitalize on the three-week window before the rest of Europe’s top leagues return to action (as Germany did at the outset of reopening), what they are currently showcasing is not particularly flattering. Larger troubles seem likely to follow. As Saint-Étienne coach, Claude Puel, notes, “We’re not going to have so many dates for postponed games and soon we’re going to hit a wall.” Whether Ligue 1 can turn around this iffy start–and whether other top European leagues are destined to follow suit or can retain the largely positive outcomes from the 2019-20 restart–remains to be seen.

*Just how literal this pivot is depends on which competitions count as a part of the European season. 2020-21 Champions League qualifying games began on Tuesday, following preliminary play-off games that began on the 8th; while the 2019-2020 Women’s Champions League tournament, played in a similarly condensed form in the Basque region of Spain, begins today and runs until the 26th.

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