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COVID-19: What does it mean for sport?

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The world is now in the midst of a global pandemic, with the topic of Coronavirus (COVID-19) dominating the front pages and conversations held worldwide. The situation has suddenly become very serious, with countries like Italy reporting over 10,000 cases of the disease, 631 deaths, and both France and Germany now reporting 1,784 and 1,296 cases of the virus respectively. 

The situation is much bigger than sport but it does leave the question - what is going to happen with regards to the major events planned for this summer? 

We have already seen Champions League last-16 fixtures Valencia vs. Atalanta and Paris Saint-Germain vs. Borussia Dortmund played behind closed doors this week, while Manchester City’s Premier League clash against Arsenal on Wednesday night was postponed due to the fact that the visitors are currently self-isolating.

Arsenal’s players and staff met with Olympiacos chairman Yannis Moralis after their Europa League exit to the Greek’s two weeks ago. Moralis was diagnosed with the virus last week which means that anybody who has been in direct contact with him recently is at risk of contracting the illness as well.

Serie A fixtures have been played behind closed throughout the previous two weeks, with this weekend’s scheduled matches all postponed due to the rising severity of the situation. La Liga have now postponed fixtures for the next two weeks, while UEFA are expected to cancel next week’s last-16 fixtures between Manchester City and Real Madrid & Bayern Munich and Chelsea. 

Euro 2020 has now been thrown into huge jeopardy, with it looking very unlikely that the tournament will go ahead this summer. The tournament’s opening game on June 12th is due to take place in Rome, Italy - the worst affected country in Europe. There have been rumours that the tournament will be delayed until 2021, but that really isn’t an option when you consider next summer's already-burgeoning calendar. 

UEFA already has a Nations League to complete, FIFA has World Cup qualifiers to fit in and, it hopes, a first ever 24-team Club World Cup, not to forget the African Cup of Nations and CONCACAF Gold Cup. This leaves UEFA with a huge headache regarding this summer’s tournament, with nobody knowing exactly how it will be resolved at this precise moment in time.

Upcoming international friendly matches - currently scheduled for the end of March - could also be cancelled if the FA follow in Spain and Italy’s footsteps and postpone forthcoming games in the Premier League, thus leaving a backlog of fixtures which will need playing on the weekend of March 27. 

Major League Soccer has today announced that they are suspending the league for a minimum of 30 days, while the PGA Tour have confirmed that as of tomorrow, no fans will be permitted to attend the remainder of the Players Championship.

This summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo are also at massive risk of being postponed. Despite the city’s governor insisting that the competition would go ahead as planned, a senior member of Japan’s governing party has said that organisers must now plan for the possibility of it being cancelled due to the scale of the pandemic. 

Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, today said that cancelling the Games, due to open on 24 July, would be “unthinkable,” but added that the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the outbreak a pandemic earlier this week would have some impact on the event.

“It can’t be said that the announcement of a pandemic would have no impact... but I think cancellation is unthinkable,” Koike told reporters, without explaining how the pandemic classification might affect the Games.

Unlike the Euro’s, which will see 12 different countries across Europe host matches - thus slightly releasing the burden on one specific nation in terms of cost and organisation - the 2020 Olympics are due to take place in just one place, with Japan spending billions throughout the previous four years in preparation for the coveted event. To see all that hard work and money effectively go to waste because of Coronavirus would be catastrophic, but there may be no other alternative. 

If the Olympics are cancelled, when will they be arranged? The natural assumption would be next summer, which throws the whole pattern of the event - held every four years - completely off-kilter. Haruyuki Takahashi, one of 25 members of the Organising Committee’s executive board, was quoted as telling the Wall Street Journal that if the Games were postponed this summer, they would be rearranged for 2022 due to next year’s sporting calendar already being largely decided.

Takahashi also does not think staging the Olympics behind closed doors is realistic because of how much money they would lose from tickets and other sales. Indeed, putting the Tokyo Games back two years would spell disaster for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, due to take place in July and August 2022. 

In summary, the whole situation is a mess. As previously stated, this global pandemic is obviously much bigger than sport. People are dying at an alarming rate and the virus seems to be spitballing. Denmark has gone into complete shutdown for the next 14 days even though there have been no confirmed deaths from CONVID-19 in the Scandanavian country. England could well be next.

There will be extreme ramifications for major sporting events if things do not calm down very soon. At the minute it is all speculation but, as we have already seen, that can all change in an instance. It is bizarre and confusing and nobody really knows exactly how to deal with it, unsurprisingly, as the last pandemic of this nature - the Spanish flu, which swept the world in 1918 - occurred when none of us were alive. 

Life will return to normal, eventually, but to what extent of sporting sacrifice? Only time will prove the decider.

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