New York: An hour or so after the fireworks had finished, long after the smoke had cleared and the lights had dimmed, a handful of Bayern Munich players returned to the field at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. In near darkness, Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba sat down on the turf. At last, the strangest season was over. Now was the time to rest and to reflect.
Or it should have been, at any rate. Yet even before Bayern collected the Champions League trophy, the new season was already under way. Including Scotland and France, a peppering of domestic leagues had started across Europe. The early rounds of the next Champions League and Europa League were already being played. Other teams had long since returned to preseason training.
- Transfer Gossip: Gareth Bale to fight for Real Madrid place, no Premier League move
- Football transfer gossip: Maldini determined to keep Zlatan Ibrahimovic at AC Milan
- English Premier League transfer gossip: Jadon Sancho to make Manchester United move?
- English Premier League football transfer gossip: Salah's Liverpool future in doubt
This feels like the weekend that the 2020-21 season starts: the opening of the new Premier League and La Liga campaigns, with Serie A and the Bundesliga scheduled to return in a few days’ time. The reality, though, is different: Football never really went away.
This is still, though, a watershed moment. The restarts of the continent’s major competitions in May and June felt, at the time, somehow novel, isolated events, make-do exceptions on the road back to normality.
Now, though, players and fans alike can see that this is how it is going to be for the foreseeable future: stadiums empty or open at only a fraction of their capacities, plans interrupted by the coronavirus, the ever-present sense that another shutdown could be on the horizon. For Gnabry, Kimmich and Alaba, and for everyone else, the strangest season may just be starting.
Season is starting. What if it can’t finish?
The problem, the clubs of the Premier League quickly realised this spring, was that there was no rule for this. The competition’s handbook stretches to hundreds of pages, but as executives pored over it and a dozen or so appendices in March and April, they saw that not one of them addressed what happened if a season could not be finished.
Six months later, they admit that the “rule book did not adequately deal with the situation”, as the league’s chief executive, Richard Masters, put it this week. In a meeting of all 20 teams last week, the hope was that an agreement could be reached that would — in his words — “add more certainty”.
It did not quite work like that. England’s clubs agreed that “finishing the season is the No. 1 priority”. Playing games behind closed doors is “now enshrined as one of the things you would have to go through before you reached curtailment”. But beyond that, there is no plan for what will happen if coronavirus cases spike again and the league cannot continue. “The issue of a cut-off point, or a number of matches to be played for a season to be valid, was not agreed,” Masters said. The same is true in Spain, where La Liga has no blueprint for a worst-case scenario.
As Europe grapples with the virus’ lingering presence and localised lockdowns and international quarantines become more commonplace, then, the football season opens with a backdrop of uncertainty. Games are already underway in France and Scotland. England and Spain start this weekend. Germany’s season on Friday and Italy’s a day after that. After six months of conversations, what happens if they cannot finish their schedules is anyone’s guess.
How will teams manage outbreaks?
Europe managed to finish last season thanks, in no small part, to the willingness of the players who comprise the competition to put their lives on hold for a few weeks. Premier League players, for example, were told that they would be under as much scrutiny as special forces troops to ensure plans for the restart were not thrown into doubt by a virus outbreak.
The game’s authorities accept that while such an approach could work for six weeks, it is not particularly realistic over the nine-month span of a full season. Indeed, in the short break between campaigns, a raft of players have contracted coronavirus. Paris St-Germain alone has reported seven cases, including Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
In March, of course, it was confirmation that Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi and Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta had contracted the virus that essentially forced the Premier League to shut down. That is no longer the automatic response. In France, the authorities have said that teams with four or more players who return positive tests will see their games postponed.
That does not mean, though, that the course of the season will not be influenced by the virus. Teams that register significant outbreaks will face daunting schedules to try to make up lost ground, and individual players who test positive will lose at least two weeks of training during their period of isolation, and then require time to be brought back to full speed, affecting their coaches’ plans and their teams’ hopes.
How will they fit in all the games?
With difficulty. During the long, tense negotiations over how to restart the season, the Uefa president, Aleksander Ceferin, was struck by how smoothly football’s various squabbling factions came together in extremis. The good of the game, he said, was paramount; red lines that had been sources of tension for years suddenly faded away.
A quick glimpse at the fixture calendar for the next nine months is enough to suggest that self-interest did not lay dormant for long. Uefa has made sure to find space for its Nations League project, as well as playing all six Champions League group stage games in the space of eight weeks before Christmas.
More impressively, various national associations have managed to squeeze in a couple of friendlies — England against New Zealand, anyone? — too. Only minor concessions to things like exhaustion or burnout have materialised: The Bundesliga will have a two-week winter break, rather than the traditional month, and England’s Football Association has abandoned replays in the FA Cup.
This season, then, is likely to be the survival of the fittest. The winter, in particular, will be arduous and endless in equal measure. The teams that have the physical conditioning — and, more significantly, can afford the depth of resources — to cope with its demands are likely to be those that emerge on top.
That should reduce the (already minimal) likelihood of surprise contenders challenging the established elite in domestic leagues; it may also give Bayern Munich a better-than-average shot of retaining the Champions League: suddenly, Germany’s 34-game league campaign has the look of a distinct advantage. It may also mean that the continent’s stars will be gasping for air by the time they arrive at the European Championships next summer, after 13 months of almost constant soccer.
So where is the entertainment?
While the compressed schedule and the lingering threat of the coronavirus are the season’s overarching themes, there is no shortage of subplots.
Italy has the look of the most intriguing title race: a Juventus team coached by a novice, Andrea Pirlo, but boasting the timeworn talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and, likely, Luis Suarez going for a 10th Scudetto in a row, with the Inter Milan of Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, the summer’s best signing, standing in the way.
It is a similar plotline in Scotland, where Celtic stand on the brink of a 10th consecutive championship, too, something that is all but unthinkable to arch-rivals Rangers. Bayern Munich are on eight straight in Germany (there is a theme here, and it is not one that bodes well for European football as a whole) and Borussia Dortmund will need Erling Haaland to maintain the ruthlessness that marked his first few months in the Bundesliga to stop that becoming nine.
The French season, already under way, is more intriguing. Thomas Tuchel’s PSG lost their opener to Lens on Thursday night, giving heart to their two likeliest contenders, Marseille and Lyon, the latter fresh from their run to the Champions League semi-finals and yet to be plucked bare by the continent’s predators.
The Premier League looks more evenly poised than in some time. Manchester City have a title to regain from Liverpool, and Pep Guardiola, their coach, has a point to prove. And as Liverpool must find some other sense of purpose after ending their 30-year wait for a domestic title, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham all ended the season on an upward curve.
Everton have added stardust, in the form of James Rodriguez, and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United add intrigue, but it is Chelsea that are most transformed. Frank Lampard, the rookie coach, was tasked with bringing through a new generation last year. This time, after spending $250 million on the likes of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, expectations, internal and external, will be far weightier.
And then, of course, there is the story that dominated the late summer, and the one that could yet prove to be the most defining of this curious, compact season.
Is this the last dance for Lionel Messi?
Deceived and dejected, Lionel Messi returned to the Barcelona fold in the first week of September. It was a strange kind of triumph for the club: their crown jewel, a player who towers over their history, confessing that he had wanted to leave for a year, shredding the reputations of Barca’s administrators, expressing how little he believed in their approach, admitting that he has only stayed because he could not leave.
He has vowed that the circumstances will not see him simply go through the motions in the final year of his contract; he is too driven, too competitive for that. There is a temptation to believe that it sets up a Last Dance scenario, with Messi reviving Barcelona one more time before heading into the sunset in Manchester or Paris.
For that to happen, though, Messi would have to be proved wrong: Barcelona would have to demonstrate that they does have some idea of how they want to return to the summit, some plan in place, some grand vision of what the future looks like. For all that Ronald Koeman, the new coach, is self-confident enough to impose himself at Camp Nou, it feels a distant prospect.
More likely is a far sadder denouement than anyone could have expected, even a year ago, one far bleaker than Messi deserves, but somehow fitting for the world we find ourselves in: a season played out in front of empty stands, the greatest of all time watching the ticking of the clock, the games coming so thick and fast that nobody has chance to catch their breath, the virus such a threat that nobody — not even him — has chance to say goodbye.