The decision to cancel the Eredivisie season last month without relegation or promotion was, according to Cambuur manager Henk de Jong, whose side led the second division by 11 points, “the greatest disgrace ever” and “unworthy of sports.” Meanwhile, Amiens president Bernard Joannin, whose team was relegated just four points from safety with “30 points left to play for” said that “football lacked humanity in this decision” to cancel the Ligue 1 season with promotion and relegation. Even as the two leagues cancelled their season with opposing outlooks on whether to crown a champion (Ligue 1 recognized PSG, the Eredivisie did not award Ajax) alongside promotion and relegation, the outcry from clubs in the first and second division showed how there was never going to be a fair conclusion to a premature end.
The decision to end the season was largely taken out of each respective league’s power. The government in each country banned sporting activities until fall, effectively making the decision for the leagues. The mandate surprised French clubs especially, with a Ligue 1 director saying that they were gearing up to finish the season “like the Germans and the Spanish.” Team executives also questioned whether the government overstepped their boundaries, with Nantes president Waldemar Kita warning “we might ask why you did not supply enough PPE masks.”
Ligue 1’s cancellation predictably kicked off a merry-go-round of reactions and criticism throughout Europe, blending sports and politics into a stream of accusations. La Liga president Javier Tebas cited the importance of sport in driving a nation’s economy. French president Emmanuel Macron reportedly tried to convince peers in the German government to also shut down the Bundesliga, though the league is scheduled to resume on May 16th. The interactions highlighted the “purity” of sport, that at the very least, the outcome is decided on the field.
“I do not understand why there would be more danger in playing football behind closed doors...than working on an assembly line, being on a fishing boat on the high sea, etc,” said Tebas, who has fought hard to portray La Liga players as the common worker and citizen throughout the pandemic.
The cancellation is expected to cost Ligue 1 up to $364 million, mostly in unpaid television revenue. Yet in true stoic form, it was not the act itself, but how the league responded to the cancellation in forcing relegation and promotion, that raised the emotional - and potentially legal - stakes. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas planned to pursue damages as a result of missing out on a European place, invoking sporting fairness by saying “Nice played at home more than us and faced PSG only once while we played them twice.” Cynically, one could observe that the most vocal teams are those that will either get relegated or not play in Europe, and that neutral sides are safe in their top division security.
Context can also shape one’s bandwidth for empathy, though even Toulouse president Olivier Sadran, whose club is in last place of Ligue 1, agreed that “football wins by not continuing.”
From anger to resignation, directed at politicians or league officials, various interpretations of sporting fairness emerged from voices throughout football. Cambuur’s emphasis on “playing attacking football, playing fast” translated into a dominant lead in the second division. The financial rewards of promotion could have transformed the club, especially symbolic for a side upholding a certain philosophy synonymous with the country. In a sliding doors moment, Cambuur could have injected the top division with a new energy and eventually played in Europe - who knows? On a personal level, this was the chance for the likes of 28-year-old centerback Erik Schouten to finally play top-division football.
Meanwhile Ajax and their 34 league titles, which lead AZ Alkmaar and their two leagues titles by a +8 goal difference in the table, will not receive any championship recognition. Soon-to-be Chelsea player Hakim Ziyech noted that he was unable to give a proper farewell to Ajax supporters. At least PSG were able to celebrate a title, I guess, which they recognized with a relatively low-key, seven-second clip on Twitter. There was no outcry here as Thomas Tuchel’s side had a 12-point lead and a +39 goal difference on Marseille.
What have been the most fair sporting outcome? AZ Alkmaar executives wanted to reward Cambuur and expand the top Eredivisie by two teams for next season, thus showing “humanity” to both divisions. There were other examples throughout the footballing world. Argentina’s Superliga suspended relegation for the next two seasons. Liga MX took the stoppage as an opportunity to reshape domestic football altogether, with a plan to suspend promotion and relegation for the next five seasons, turning the second-division into a youth-focused competition with a limit on players over 23-years-old.
Optimists saw the suspension in play as a way for the game to look within and slowly wean itself off television reliance. Of course, inertia proved too great and little happened. And even if this was a chance to reset the game towards a sustainable model, moral correctness could still have had a devastating effect on sides throughout the footballing pyramid.
“Football here was already bordering on crisis,” added agent and agency director Gregoire Akcelrod on the state of Ligue 1.
“Four points - in the football world, that’s nothing. Then you have people coming to the town because of the football, going to the hotels, visiting the bars and restaurants. In League 2, no one will come,” said Amiens sporting director John Williams about the impact of relegation on both his club and town.
With its outsized impact on smaller clubs throughout a country’s pyramid, the past weeks have raised an existential examination to the purpose of lower leagues. Does football matter if it lacks the scale for television? In a timeline of billions of dollars, how does one measure the importance of Cambuur or Amiens, especially if certain clubs need to be financially saved? Perhaps these struggles provide even more momentum for the creation of a European Superleague, featuring international brands that transcend ideas of domesticity and relegation. French sports minister Roxana Maracineau asked the wealthy to not “split hairs” and to “think of others and society,” though those comments could also be applied to PSG and Ajax when considering the likes of Amiens and Cambuur.
“If you are relegated with 25 percent of the games still to be played, that’s not fair,” continued Williams. If this season were a novel, that unresolved, lingering tension would affect the relationship between clubs and leagues for generations, until it was somehow made right. The immediate financial implications are obvious, yet spiteful, behind-the-scenes memories may last even longer. The literal and figurative price paid for this season will continue to hang over European football for years, should certain clubs be lucky enough to see it.