There’s no football right now. Nor is there much of anything in the world right now thanks to Covid-19.
The world is on pause under lockdown for an indeterminate amount of time in an effort to reduce the impact of the deadliest pandemic to hit the world in just over 100 years.
While there are hopes that the peaks have been hit in the hardest hit countries, Spain and Italy, concern continues to grow in Britain and the U.S where increasingly stringent lockdown laws are being introduced in efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
For the first time in 75 years, world football has realised that it does not exist separately to the rest of society. Not since WWII has football ceased to play on this wide a scale, at the time of writing there are only 3 leagues still running across the globe: Burundi, Belarus and Nicaragua, all to varying degrees of controversy.
What this means for the immediate future is unclear. Belgium has been the first country to cancel their league and award the title of Champion to Club Brugge, but other leagues around the world remain reluctant to follow suit. Not least because there could be sanctions from FIFA and significant financial losses incurred.
While this is the first pandemic to grip the world in a fair amount of time, this isn’t the first time that football has been put on hold. Somewhat surprisingly, there is actually a long history of postponement in world football because of external factors meaning there is much for present day clubs to learn from.
Because of war
The most obvious examples here, are the two World Wars, but even then, football showed a singular drive to continue.
Rather inexplicably, football in Britain actually continued after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The fact that able-bodied men continued to play football while others of their same age were fighting in the trenches in Europe was controversial enough, but the season ended in scandal when players from both Manchester United and Liverpool were found guilty of essentially match-fixing a fixture between the two sides.
Everton would finish as champions and the Football Leagued eventually decided to postpone further seasons until peace was announced in 1918.
The FA clearly saw the error of their ways when World War II happened. All the divisions of the football played their third fixtures of the season a day after Germany invaded Poland, these fixtures would be the last official games to be played in Britain until 1946 largely thanks to gatherings of crowds not being allowed due to the implementation of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939.
A Wartime league was established but this was fragmented with teams only playing other sides within a 50-mile radius, although this was later relaxed leading to almost preposterous scenes of 40,000 fans attending Wembley to see West Ham defeat Blackburn in the Football League War Cup.
Football continued to a reduced degree as the government claimed this was a form of recreation during wartime.
Another famous example being the Spanish Civil War. No ‘official’ football took place between 1936-1939 with Athletic Bilbao reigning as champions until the football restarted in the era of Franco some years later. Areas controlled by the Republicans did see an unofficial Mediterranean league take place, but this has yet to be recognised as an official Championship success for Barcelona.
More recent examples include war torn countries like Afghanistan, Ukraine and Syria. All of these countries have had their leagues affected with constant interruptions in procession, particularly with Afghanistan and Syria, but all forged ahead and managed to complete seasons despite the surrounding conflict.
A misdirect in this category is the Football War, named so because of riots that occurred between Honduras and El Salvador during qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup. That game served to exacerbate already existing tensions between the neighbouring countries but no football was affected during this conflict that only lasted a matter of days.
Because of epidemics
Epidemics have been rife through human history. Strangely though, despite the considerable threat to life in some instances, football tends to carry on regardless. There has been a smattering of instances where football has been affected but they are few and far between.
You have to go back to 1965 for the last incident where football in Britain was postponed because of the threat an epidemic poses, Blackburn were affected by the spread of Poliovirus which claimed the life of a teenager in the town at the time.
Additionally, all the way back in 1898, Middlesbrough were forced to play a ‘secret’ game behind closed doors because of an outbreak of Smallpox in the region.
In 1918 the misleadingly named Spanish flu hit the world, the deadliest epidemic since the Black Plague. Despite there being 500 million confirmed cases worldwide, sport was mostly unaffected by the Spanish flu largely due to the fact the First World War was raging on most sports (as previously mentioned) weren’t being played, the exception being the hockey leagues in North America.
In the early 2000s, the outbreak of SARS, a type of coronavirus that hit hardest China where there over 5000 deaths, led to the 2003 Women’s World Cup to be moved from China to the U.S. Instead, China would host the 2007 edition while also being paid $1 million as compensation for planning expenses.
Fast forward to 2015 and the latest tournament to be affected by an outbreak was the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Morocco had been announced to host the tournament for only the second time in their history. But due to the Western African Ebola epidemic, Morocco were stripped of hosting duties and expelled from the tournament.
Curiously, Morocco were mostly unaffected by the epidemic but were concerned about fans travelling from more affected countries could help speed up the spread of the virus (sound familiar?) and requested the tournament to be postponed. 2012 hosts Equatorial Guinea stepped in to host and things continued to get messy between Morocco and the CAF (Confederation of African Football).
The Moroccan Sports Minister Mohamed Ouzzine claimed that CAF had accused his country of ‘refusing’ to host the tournament, using advice from WHO (World Health Organisation) as the reasoning behind Morocco’s desire to postpone. This excuse didn’t stick in the eyes of CAF and Morocco were banned from the subsequent two AFCON tournament while also be fined to the princely sum of $1 million. This would later be overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport but it’s an incident that still leaves a sour taste, considering the circumstances.
Because of miscellaneous
As well as war and pestilence, there are have been a myriad of other reasons why football seasons have been cancelled.
Take a look at the 1955 DDR-Oberliga for example, the top division in Soviet controlled East Germany.
Between 1949 and 1957, the East German Sports Committee (DS) was officially responsible for administering the country’s various leagues through its Football Section (SF). In 1955, the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or the German Democratic Republic in English) wanted to adapt their institutions to be more in line with those of the Soviet Union. This meant that the league in its current guise, running from August to May, had to change to be a calendar year season.
1955 existed as a transition championship, only 13 games were played and SC Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt finished top of the championship. Although technically incomplete, they were declared as “unofficial” champions.
Another competition that was never finished was the 2001 Women’s US Cup, competed for by China, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. The competition was cancelled after 6 games played due to the September 11 attacks and never completed. The MLS at the time was also affected but unlike the Women’s US Cup, they did eventually complete the season.
Social unrest, to put it lightly, has also been the cause of cancellation in football. The Chilean protests, which began in 2019 and are still technically ongoing today forced the end of the 2019 Chilean football season. The inciting incidents behind the protests are numerous and range from the rise in public transport fares, the wild rise in the cost of living, income inequality, increase in privatisation and political corruption so prevalent in Chile.
The protests were the largest Chile has seen since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship and in November of 2019 the ANFP (Asociación Nacional de Fútbol Profesional) took the controversial decision of suspending the league, with Universidad Católica, leading the league at the time, winning their 14th title. There were also no teams relegated to the Primera B below.
But perhaps the wildest reason for a season to be cancelled came in Colombia in 1989.
The 42nd season of Colombia’s top-flight was cancelled after 318 matches because of the assassination of referee Álvaro Ortega on 1 October in Medellín.
Since the 70s, Colombian football had been blighted by association with the mafia and cartels. This association would be ramped up in the 80s when the most infamous of mobsters, Pablo Escobar, would get involved as he became involved with Atletico Nacional. A successful club from Escobar’s home city, Atletico Nacional would go on to win the 1989 Copa Libertadores.
Escobar wasn’t the only cartel boss to use football clubs as a front to launder money, but the spotlight would be firmly shone on them after referee Alvaro Ortega was murdered in the street several just days after making a decision that cost Nacional a win, supposedly on the orders of Escobar himself.
Colombian football was plunged into mourning and the league cancelled. No champion was declared, and no teams qualified for international competitions for the following season, although Atlético Nacional would play in the 1990 Copa Libertadores as the champion of the previous edition.
There are plenty of examples of football being postponed, rescheduled, or just completely cancelled. Enough, you would think, for the various authorities in football to learn from but as we know television rights and player contracts are so huge in the modern day it only serves to complicate the issue further.
As we keep being told, by the news and social media, we are living through unprecedented times and unprecedented times come with extraordinary measures. The absence of football hurts but Bill Shankly got it wrong, some things are more important.