You’ll have to be patient with a born-and-bred Yankee who’s only familiar with how America handles its pro sports. Much is done differently across the pond, starting with the fact that “playoff” and “domestic club league” don’t always cling in conjunction in Europe. The English Premier League hosts 38 games for each team in every cycle. The team that produces the most wins-and-draws points prevails. “Playoffs” occur only to settle deadlocks on the table. If there’s a “Super Bowl” of English football, it happens multiple times per season, and a gigantic fixture’s who-what-where depends on how every other match has gone prior to kickoff.
That being said, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin’s remarks to the media on Wednesday sound worse than merely absurd to this blogger’s ears.
Čeferin refused to throw a life-raft to Liverpool supporters, who endured the EPL season’s suspension just as Reds had accumulated an historic 25-point lead, and implied strongly that the club could not earn Premier League honors from a 29-match season as the results stand today. That’s crazy talk. Dangerous talk, even, as in EU-vs-Brexit dangerous.
The UEFA boss is telling the press he will not recommend that any league titles be awarded in competitions which are unable to finish the 2019-20 season. Though Čeferin did not directly address Liverpool in his statement, it was made in direct response to a question about the presumptive Premier League winners. That alone makes Čeferin’s now widely-distributed quotes as tone-deaf as they come. Reds supporters are in enough dismay over the events of the past month. Now UEFA is kicking them when they’re down.
But I can’t help but think – as a naïve American – that there are some jurisdictional issues at play too. As in, can the UEFA really hold much influence over who the Premiership crowns as its champion?
If there’s a dispute over an NBA playoff series, FIBA does not step in and suggest a ruling. Conundrums at individual PGA Tour stops are not necessarily sent to the USGA or the Royal & Ancient Club to make a call – quite the contrary.
UEFA controls the Champions League in addition to continental titles for national teams. But if Čeferin’s implied threat is that an honorary Premier League trophy handed to Liverpool after just 29 matches would be ignored vis-à-vis the club’s Champions League status, he may choose to reconsider out of self-interest.
Will the Champions League Accept “Incomplete” League Qualification for 2020-21?
Needless to say, the Premier League is not the only domestic table tapped by UEFA when filling-up annual groups in the Champions League and Europa League. But because all of football has been truncated across the continent, not just in England, any UEFA policy on coronavirus-shortened seasons must extend far beyond a single league.
In essence, Čeferin is saying that the UEFA’s main task – to use W/D/L records to determine which clubs qualify for its annual competitions – would be impossible if the EPL doesn’t figure out a way to play well over 30 sets of fixtures in the cycle.
That’s ridiculous on its face, since it’s not as if all European club leagues play a standardized number of matches. Bundesliga, 3rd on UEFA’s coefficient ranking scale, includes only 18 clubs in a 34-match schedule. Denmark’s “Superliga” involves 14 teams playing less than 30 total rounds in a full season.
Don’t fall victim to the comparison of Liverpool to Barcelona, a team currently 2 points ahead in La Liga. The title-trophy scenarios of Reds and Barça are only comparable from a technical POV and not a common-sense POV. Yes, Liverpool is not mathematically clear of all rivals on the current Premiership table. But the 2019-20 squad has been on pace to shatter every record in sight, and after losing only 1 time during the league campaign, could lose 3 or 4 times in a row and still hold a commanding lead in points.
If an NFL team was 12-1 through 13 weeks of a season and their nearest competitors had 9 wins, the former club could still be mathematically caught-up to in the standings. But you’d like to think that in that scenario, if the Almighty descended upon Earth and declared that football was coming to an end for the season, the gridiron organizations and fan bases of North America would be willing to acknowledge who the best team had been. If accolades and rewards had to be given out in such a predicament – and the UEFA’s hand is forced in this regard if a 2020-21 Champions League is to exist – then there would be no question who the “champions of football” would be.
“But that’s just the NFL’s regular season, not the playoffs or the Super Bowl,” you might say. But unlike the National Football League, the Premier League’s “Super Bowl” is the “regular” season. It’s not as if Reds racked-up an impressive “regular season” record prior to the top 8 or 12 English clubs engaging in an elimination-bracket for the trophy. Liverpool has beaten a plurality of fellow EPL clubs twice and have not fallen to a single team on-aggregate despite an 0-3 shocker of a loss to Watford on February 29th.
Perhaps UEFA’s attitude would be different if Reds hadn’t suffered a lone slump just prior to the Coronavirus outbreak’s cancellation or postponement of all major sports around the world. The stuffed shirts of soccer like to act as though they’re above such trifles, but consider the alternative. If Liverpool had won its Champions League Round-of-16 tie and was still active in a competition it won last year, combined with an invincible streak through every round of the Premier League season, it might not feel so kosher to speak as if Jürgen Klopp’s side may not be welcome in the upcoming CL due to simply missing-out on up to 10 more dates of total domestic-league domination.
Liverpool’s Headlines Take Turn for the Better
It’s not all gloom and doom at Anfield, thanks in-part to a story that broke on Thursday. The Premier League announced that the U.K.’s Football Association – the real boss of Premiership organizers – has agreed to extend indefinitely its summer deadline of June 1st for the completion of all league matches.
Meanwhile, the EPL is aiming for a restart-date around April 30th. If not all originally-scheduled matches can be played, a common-sense solution might be to let enough fixtures take place so that Liverpool can mathematically clinch the 1st-place award under normal 38-appearance rules. Even a truncated season-finish would hearten Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and the rest of a starting 11 that must have mourned being in its worst form of the year when the pandemic struck and sidelined everyone. Losing is the most-recent experience Reds supporters have had following a cycle of sustained glory.
Notice that Salah, Firmino, and Liverpool’s other obvious world-class talents are not mentioned here as reasons why the club should be crowned winners if the Premier League’s 6-week sabbatical turns into 12 or 24. Watford’s current lineup would have a case to lift the trophy if standing at 27-1-1 and dozens of points above Man City after ¾ of a campaign. We already have a summer, fall, and winter’s worth of match results – those who are calling for the whole cycle of outcomes to be wiped-out are mostly those upset about the scores.
Regardless of what UEFA does or does not do, it should still be well within the Premiership’s power to bestow hardware on a club that has been its presumptive 2020 champion for well over a month now.
With the spread of Coronavirus even more unpredictable than a UEFA president having a petulant day, the EPL must ensure that supporters know which organization will make the ultimate call on Liverpool’s title bid…no matter how the spring shakes out.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.