French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly tried to convince peers in the German government to also shut down the Bundesliga, although the league is scheduled to resume on May 16th. Jack Gruber-USA TODAY NETWORK

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 without promotion and relegation. Even as the two leagues canceled 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 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 its 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, although 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, although 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 league 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 toward 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 their outsized impact on smaller clubs throughout a country’s pyramid, the past weeks have raised an existential examination of 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,” although 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. 

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.



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Can you name every country to make the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup?
SCORE:
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TIME:
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2018 / 1st
France
2018 / 2nd
Croatia
2018 / 3rd
Belgium
2018 / 4th
England
2014 / 1st
Germany
2014 / 2nd
Argentina
2014 / 3rd
Netherlands
2014 / 4th
Brazil
2010 / 1st
Spain
2010 / 2nd
Netherlands
2010 / 3rd
Germany
2010 / 4th
Uruguay
2006 / 1st
Italy
2006 / 2nd
France
2006 / 3rd
Germany
2006 / 4th
Portugal
2002 / 1st
Brazil
2002 / 2nd
Germany
2002 / 3rd
Turkey
2002 / 4th
South Korea
1998 / 1st
France
1998 / 2nd
Brazil
1998 / 3rd
Croatia
1998 / 4th
Netherlands
1994 / 1st
Brazil
1994 / 2nd
Italy
1994 / 3rd
Sweden
1994 / 4th
Bulgaria
1990 / 1st
West Germany
1990 / 2nd
Argentina
1990 / 3rd
Italy
1990 / 4th
England
1986 / 1st
Argentina
1986 / 2nd
West Germany
1986 / 3rd
France
1986 / 4th
Belgium
1982 / 1st
Italy
1982 / 2nd
West Germany
1982 / 3rd
Poland
1982 / 4th
France
1978 / 1st
Argentina
1978 / 2nd
Netherlands
1978 / 3th
Brazil
1978 / 4th
Italy
1974 / 1st
West Germany
1974 / 2nd
Netherlands
1974 / 3rd
Poland
1974 / 4th
Brazil
1970 / 1st
Brazil
1970 / 2nd
Italy
1970 / 3rd
West Germany
1970 / 4th
Uruguay
1966 / 1st
England
1966 / 2nd
West Germany
1966 / 3rd
Portugal
1966 / 4th
Soviet Union
1962 / 1st
Brazil
1962 / 2nd
Czechoslovakia
1962 / 3rd
Chile
1962 / 4th
Yugoslavia
1958 / 1st
Brazil
1958 / 2nd
Sweden
1958 / 3rd
France
1958 / 4th
West Germany
1954 / 1st
West Germany
1954 / 2nd
Hungary
1954 / 3rd
Austria
1954 / 4th
Uruguay
1950 / 1st
Uruguay
1950 / 2nd
Brazil
1950 / 3rd
Sweden
1950 / 4th
Spain
1938 / 1st
Italy
1938 / 2nd
Hungary
1938 / 3rd
Brazil
1938 / 4th
Sweden
1934 / 1st
Italy
1934 / 2nd
Czechoslovakia
1934 / 3rd
Germany
1934 / 4th
Austria
1930 / 1st
Uruguay
1930 / 2nd
Argentina
1930 / 3rd
United States
1930 / 4th
Yugoslavia

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