Soccer newsletter: Coronavirus leads to a death in the soccer world
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and there’s only one place to begin today: with the coronavirus, something you are tired of reading about and I am tired of writing about. But it continues to threaten us, our family and friends; it’s taken away our nights out, our theater (guess who had “Hamilton” tickets?) and our sports, the one diversion we could always turn to for escape in times of crisis.
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The soccer world, with very few exceptions, has been put on hold by COVID-19. On Sunday, as if to underscore the seriousness of the pandemic, the sport endured its first major loss when Spanish coach Francisco Garcia died from COVID-19.
Garcia was coach of the Infantil A side at Malaga-based Atlético Portada for the past four years. He was also suffering from leukemia, which placed him at great risk for contracting the virus. At 21, he is the youngest person to die from coronavirus symptoms in the Malaga area.
Spain, which had been playing soccer as recently as seven days ago, is now on a nationwide lockdown with nearly 10,000 people reported as having the virus. Garcia is one of 342 in Spain who have died from it as of late Tuesday.
And there is little chance things will return to normal any time soon.
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The 55 member associations of UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, were scheduled to have a videoconference on Tuesday to decide how to conclude the season with the postponement of the European Championships, scheduled to open June 12 in Rome, a major topic on the agenda.
If the Euros are delayed a year, which seems likely, and the Nations League is also abandoned there would be no international soccer in Europe until next March.
UEFA leaders will also discuss the Champions League and Europa League tournaments, the continent’s top club competitions which, like most league seasons, have been suspended. One idea that has been proposed would shorten the tournaments by playing the quarterfinals and semifinals as winner-take-all games rather than as two-leg playoffs decided by aggregate goals.
Aside from the health and safety of players, staff and fans during the coronavirus pandemic, of concern for many soccer officials in Europe is the integrity of the domestic club season.
Italy’s Serie A, like most major European leagues, is on hold until at least April 3 and Italian federation president Gabriele Gravina said he hopes teams will be able play a full 38-game schedule, concluding by June 30. Given tight races in Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, those leagues may also have to push into early summer so finding ways to protect the league season, even at the expense of the Euros, appears to be gaining support.
England has also halted professional games for men and women until at least April 3 after a number of players and coaches tested positive for the virus. Now some club executives are openly feuding over what to do next.
The three main options under consideration are:
- Finishing the full 38-game schedule when play resumes, whenever that happens
- Ending the season in May, as scheduled, and awarding trophies and determining promotion and relegation based at the standings at that point, no matter the number of matches play
- Declaring the season void.
Karren Brady, vice-chair at West Ham United, which is in danger of being relegated, favors the third option, one Brighton’s Paul Barber considers “incredibly unjust” for Liverpool. The Reds, who have a 25-point lead atop the table, are basically two wins away from their first-ever EPL title.
“There is no dodging the possibility that all levels in the English Football League (EFL), as well as the Premier League, will have to be canceled and this season declared null and void because if the players can’t play the games,” Brady wrote in the Sun newspaper.
“The Premier League hopes that an interlude of three weeks from now will enable it to restart but that may well be dreamland. Perhaps scrubbing Euro 2020 could provide more time to complete the season into the summer but that is also a giant ‘if.’ What if the league cannot be finished?”
Brady later clarified her concern wasn’t for the standings but rather for the safety of fans, players and staff.
Barber told the BBC it is “really hard to imagine” the Premier League resuming during the next three weeks and if that doesn’t happen, he favors awarding Liverpool the title, sparring teams relegation and promoting the top two teams from the second-tier Championship, setting up a 22-team competition next season.
“If we can’t complete the season,” Barber said “we have to look at radical solutions to get over a short-term hump, as it is.”
Among the few leagues still playing as of Monday were the Russian Premier League, which is limiting attendance in some venues to 5,000; the Turkish Super Lig, which is playing behind closed doors until the end of April; and Australia’s A-League and women’s W-League, which have also banned fans from matches. However there was speculation Australia could soon stop play indefinitely after the government forced two teams – Wellington Phoenix and the Melbourne Victory – into a 14-day quarantine after their match Sunday in New Zealand.
The Chilean Primera Division, which played its regularly scheduled games Sunday, decided early Monday to suspend play while Mexico’s Liga MX, which had planned to continue playing in empty stadiums, halted play Sunday night. It went out in spectacular fashion with goalkeeper Jesús Corona, playing in an empty Estadio Azteca, laying out to make a save on Emanuel Aguilera’s penalty kick 10 minutes into stoppage time on what may be prove to be the final play for the season.
The win kept Cruz Azul atop the table, one point ahead of León, after 10 games. The local connection between those two clubs is LAFC, which has already eliminated León and is scheduled to play Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League if the tournament resumes. The first game of the two-leg playoff was abruptly postponed hours before kickoff last Thursday.
The games mustn’t go on
As of Monday night, MLS was still uncertain when its 25th anniversary season would resume. When the league suspended play last Thursday it said the break would last 30 days and affect 38 games – three Galaxy matches and two from LAFC. With the CONCACAF Champions League pausing on the same day, LAFC also saw its two-game quarterfinal with Cruz Azul postponed.
Then on Sunday the Centers for Disease Control recommended gatherings of 50 or more people be banned for at least eight weeks, doubling the planned delay for MLS and leaving the league with the option of extending its break or resuming the schedule in mid-April as planned, holding a month’s worth of games in empty stadiums.
MLS has also instituted a moratorium on training sessions, one LAFC general manager John Thorrington said the league was in the process of reviewing. Under the plan in place late Monday, players were allowed only limited access to team training facilities and only on an individual basis to conform to calls for social distancing.
“The primary responsibility for all of us is to reduce any chance of community spread. So [we are] certainly making sure that all of the necessary cleaning and disinfecting is happening within the facility and then also educating the players and staff on their responsibility making sure we’re not spreading to vulnerable populations.”
Thorrington, who has been working from home, wearing out his cell phone battery, said there is little urgency regarding on-field issues for the time being.
“Our thoughts are with people that are dealing with far more than just scheduling and things like that,” he said. “We will do our best to prepare and execute a season as best we can.”
Galaxy president Chris Klein said his team was taking a similar position.
“There is a much bigger issue going on in the world, which I think is more important,” he said.
But, he said, the coaching staff is preparing a training regime for what will be a second preseason training camp when players are allowed to return to Dignity Health Sports Park while league administrators are looking into issues like stadium availability for new schedule dates.
“We’re looking at scenarios now,” Klein said.
The MLS standings after two weeks (they won’t be changing any time soon)
W L T Pts GF GA GD
Atlanta 2 0 0 6 4 2 2
Montreal 1 0 1 4 4 3 1
New York Red Bulls 1 0 1 4 4 3 1
Toronto 2 0 1 4 3 2 1
Columbus 1 0 1 4 2 1 1
D.C. United 1 1 0 3 3 3 0
Chicago 0 1 1 1 2 3 -1
New England 0 1 1 1 2 3 -1
Orlando City 0 1 1 1 1 2 -1
Philadelphia 0 1 1 1 3 5 -2
Cincinnati 0 2 0 0 3 5 -2
Inter Miami 0 2 0 0 1 3 -2
New York City 0 2 0 0 0 2 -2
Kansas City 2 0 0 6 7 1 6
Minnesota 2 0 0 6 8 3 5
Colorado 2 0 0 6 4 2 2
Dallas 1 0 1 4 4 2 2
LAFC 1 0 1 4 4 3 1
Seattle 1 0 1 4 3 2 1
Portland 1 1 0 3 2 3 -1
Vancouver 1 1 0 3 2 3 -1
Real Salt Lake 0 0 2 2 1 1 0
Galaxy 0 1 1 2 1 2 -1
San Jose 0 1 1 1 4 7 -3
Houston 0 1 1 1 1 5 -4
Nashville 0 0 2 0 1 3 -2
Now for something completely different
The first home opener in history for David Beckham’s Inter Miami MLS expansion club was postponed indefinitely by the coronavirus pandemic. And when the season resumes, there’s no guarantee his team’s first home game will be against the Galaxy, the dream matchup the MLS schedule makers came up with. But Beckham, who helped the Galaxy to two MLS Cup wins in six seasons, has known hardship before.
His first job couldn’t have been more different than the jet-setting, celebrity lifestyle he began leading ever before retiring as one of global soccer’s iconic figures. But he says there’s a straight line linking one to the other.
As a 14-year-old, when he was still an unknown youth player at Tottenham, Beckham made $3 an hour collecting beer glasses and emptying ashtrays at a dog-racing track in East London.
Today Beckham’s net worth is estimated at nearly half a billion dollars and others will collect the empty glasses left around the owners’ box when he shows up to watch his team at its temporary home in Ft. Lauderdale.
“I’ve come a long way since then,” Beckham said with a chuckle. But what he learned in that first job, he said, went a long way toward making him an international soccer star and now part-owner of an MLS team.
“My parents luckily gave me a good work ethic,” he said. “I like to think that everything that has happened has come through hard work and dedication and having support from my parents and friends.”
What Beckham needs now is patience. His team is winless after two games; his plans to build a stadium in downtown Miami have been frustrated over five years, forcing the team to build a 18,000-seat stadium in Broward County; he has so far failed to lure a major European star to South Florida, the kind of player who would do for Inter Miami what Beckham did for the Galaxy when he joined MLS 12 years ago.
But it’s still early. And besides, all those concerns take a back seat to the immediate threat posed by the coronavirus.
“It’s times like these when we are reminded of the things that are truly important in life: Our health, our loved ones and looking after those that need support in our communities,” he wrote on Instagram. “In these moments, sport takes a back seat. We must all listen to expert advice and do the right thing. Stay safe and look out for yourselves and your families”
“The rest of sport – tennis, Formula One, rugby, golf, football in other countries – was closing down and we were being told to carry on. I think a lot of footballers were wondering, ‘Is it something to do with money being involved in this?’ ”
Wayne Rooney, former Manchester Union captain, writing in The Times of London, on English soccer’s belated decision to halt play until April 3, a decision made only after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tested positive for coronavirus
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