Even after Boris Johnson’s press conference with his chief medical advisers on Thursday 12th March, the Premier League and EFL were set to continue as normal. At that stage, some clubs had confirmed that certain players were self-isolating, either due to displaying symptoms of coronavirus themselves, or having been in close contact with those who had tested positive.
Football’s governing bodies were keen to press on with their schedules since the government hadn’t told them otherwise, but that all changed when it was confirmed late on Thursday that Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had tested positive for the virus, and was now self-isolating. It had earlier been confirmed that the owner of Olympiacos, who Arsenal played in the Europa League a week before, had also tested positive, although it is said that Arteta did not have any contact with him when the two clubs met.
Arteta’s case forced the Premier League and EFL to organise an emergency meeting with club officials and various stakeholders, during which the decision was made to suspend competition until early April. It was widely regarded as the correct and sensible decision, but left football fans stuck with the prospect of no sporting action for at least two weeks.
The decision, while undoubtedly the right one, has thrown the English league season into chaos. For those betting on Premier League final standings, it remains anyone’s guess who will finish in the coveted Champions League places, and who indeed will be relegated. There have been suggestions that the current season could be voided, although such a drastic measure would not be the first choice for the vast majority of clubs.
Arsenal’s entire first-team playing squad and backroom staff have been in self-isolation since it was confirmed that Arteta had contracted the virus, and it remains to be seen how clubs cope with the fact that several players may be forced to self-isolate at any one time. While the leagues are currently suspended until early April, it is expected that the pause in play will go on for significantly longer than that. It will be a huge challenge for Arsenal and other English clubs to maintain a well-coordinated training schedule amidst such chaos.
It seems something of a shame that it took a high-profile Premier League figure catching the coronavirus to spark the authorities into greater action. Most agree that it would have been madness to play out another round of English football fixtures, given the close contact among supporters, not just while seated in the stadium but in bathrooms, public spaces and transport links.
At Arsenal, supporters converge from all parts of London via a plethora of different transport options. Given the crammed nature of travelling on the London Underground and London Buses as kick-off approaches at the Emirates, it is likely that thousands of supporters would have been at risk.
We’re all going to miss football while it is gone, but perspective is needed as we pine for live sporting action and lament the scheduling of Mrs Brown’s Boys in place of Match of the Day. Thankfully, Arteta was reported to be feeling much better just a couple of days after it was confirmed he had the virus. Others may not be so fortunate, and while we all wish the season could go on as normal, current circumstances demand that sport shuts down for a while. We’ll enjoy football all the more when this is over.