The Atatürk Olympic Stadium will forever hold its place in soccer history as the venue of one of the most dramatic Champions League finals of all time. In 2005, it staged “The Miracle of Istanbul,” where Liverpool came back from a 3-0 halftime deficit to beat AC Milan.
Sadly, the Atatürk Olympic Stadium may soon be famous for something else: not staging the 2020 edition of the final.
If not for the COVID-19 outbreak, UEFA’s showpiece event would be taking place in Istanbul this coming weekend. Liverpool would not be involved on this occasion, having crashed out of the competition against Atletico Madrid two days before it was postponed, in a match at Anfield that has been widely blamed for exacerbating the coronavirus death toll in the UK.
Only four teams have currently qualified for the quarterfinal stage: Atletico Madrid, PSG, RB Leipzig and plucky underdogs Atalanta. Real Madrid and Juventus are currently facing round of 16 first-leg deficits, while Barcelona and Napoli are tied 1-1 with a second leg at the Camp Nou potentially awaiting.
La Liga may be planning a mid-June restart, along with several other European leagues, but the prospect of playing the remaining 23 matches of the Champions League across the continent is highly impractical. The French government might not even let PSG play their remaining games at home, given the fact that Ligue 1 has already cancelled the remainder of its season.
If the Champions League must be meaningfully concluded, there is a better solution than Istanbul or a mishmash of locations for the remaining games.
There is a country that has already demonstrated its ability to resume soccer in a safe manner. A country that has used mass testing and a prudent approach to safety protocols to dramatically lower the risk of staging sporting events.
It’s clear that no European nation is better suited to play the beautiful game at the moment. To minimize the risk of spreading the virus through travel, it makes sense for the competition to be concluded in a centralized location.
Spanish outlet AS has reported the Champions League intends to resume on Aug. 8 in an “express” format. Once the remaining round of 16 matches are played, the quarterfinals and semifinals will be single games instead of two-leg ties. It is unclear where the quarterfinals would be played, but the final four, under this proposal, would battle it out in Istanbul.
The plan, according to AS, would require the 2020-21 season to be delayed, with players being given rest throughout September. This proposal will reportedly require final approval at UEFA’s executive committee meeting on June 17, coincidentally, the date the Premier League is officially scheduled to return.
The “express” solution is troubling, and not just for matters related to competition. Turkey, according to Johns Hopkins University calculations, ranks ninth globally for confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 14th for virus-related deaths. There are plans for the Turkish Super Lig to recommence in mid-June, but there is much skepticism around this timeline.
Holding a version of this format in Germany makes much more sense. Once the 2019-20 domestic obligations in Germany, England, Spain and Italy have been fulfilled, the Champions League representatives from those countries could convene in the home of the Bundesliga. They could quarantine, then play out the remaining matches in the expedited format. In an ideal scenario, the action could be concluded by the end of August, causing only a small delay to the start of the new campaign.
There is a strong feeling among fans that the Champions League should be declared null and void for the season. A pan-continental contest seems unnecessary when there are far more pressing issues at hand, while the integrity of the competition is also threatened. (Even if play is allowed in a truncated format behind closed doors, it is troubling to change the rules midway through a competition. The winner would forever have an asterisk by its name.)
However, for the same financial reasons that many of Europe’s leagues are endeavoring to restart under less-than-ideal conditions, the folks at UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) have resolved that the show must go on.
It won’t go on without issue, even if it’s staged entirely in Germany. The timings may need refining, the staging might give an unfair edge to Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, and it is unclear how welcome foreign soccer teams will be to cross European borders in the coming months.
However, if UEFA insists that the show goes on, Germany could be the best solution for an imperfect situation.
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