At their board meeting on Friday, the decision makers of France’s top professional soccer league were making plans for the resumption of their competition: plans for safety protocols, training schedules and possible dates for when the first games could be played.
The talks were similar to those among executives of the other top European leagues. In Germany, players are already on the practice field. Spain has devised a hygiene plan for players and staff. In England and Italy, tentative moves are being made for a return, too.
But then, on Monday night, the planning in France was brought to an abrupt halt by a declaration by the prime minister, Édouard Philippe. The French soccer season, the prime minister announced, was over. Not paused like the others, but over.
The announcement sent shock waves across French soccer, with team owners and league officials struggling to figure out what it meant. The financial impact of not finishing the season would be crippling for teams in France, just as it would be elsewhere. League officials across Europe are warning about bankruptcies and financial carnage across the sporting landscape if television contracts that underpin their competitions are unable to be fulfilled.
So with a huge amount of anxiety, a group of executives from some of France’s leading teams joined in a conference call with the sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, shortly after Philippe’s address.
Maracineanu, according to Bernard Caiazzo, who heads a group representing Ligue 1 clubs, said the government would offer support to clubs from the hugely damaging effects of not playing.
The government, Caiazzo said by telephone, would guarantee up to 90 percent of emergency loans the league is trying to secure from banks, a measure that is also being considered by the German league even though it is on course to be the first top division league to start playing again.
(The French league is talking to banks about a 200 million euro bridging loan, or about $217 million, to replace the final payment for the season that has been withheld by its broadcast partners since games were suspended in March.)
Social charges, a 40 percent tax on players’ salaries, may also be temporarily waived, he said. Clubs also have the option of agreeing to a 70 percent payment deferral with their athletes, which would go a long way toward alleviating some of the immediate pain, since players’ salaries are the most expensive item on teams’ balance sheets.
“I use the example of someone losing blood, even a little bit all the time: In the end he is going to die,” said Caiazzo, who also owns the top division team Saint-Étienne. “We need a blood transfusion, and the government said we will give it to you.”
Still, the sudden change in direction leaves much in the air. For example, it’s unclear whether France will crown a league champion this year — Paris Saint-Germain led the standings by 12 points when the season was stopped with 11 games to go — or whether teams will be promoted or relegated between the top two divisions.
The prime minister’s choice of declaring the league over has also led to confusion and surprise.
On a call with the league on Friday, the French soccer federation told the league to refine preparations to get players back practicing, telling officials that all that was now required was a final signoff from the government. By Tuesday, everything had changed.
“The 2019-20 season of professional sports, including football, will not be able to resume,” the prime minister told parliament.
Some club executives questioned why the prime minister did not limit his comments to when games could be played, rather than say the season was over. Jean-Michel Aulas, who as the owner of Olympique Lyonnais is one of the most powerful figures in French soccer, said he hoped that a playoff could be arranged to work out the final standings before the new season commenced.
Paris St.-Germain officials were said to be furious with the decision and have tried to contact the prime minister’s office for clarification.
Still, some clubs are more comfortable with the season being over than others, and the reason is money. The majority of the last portion of the current television contract was supposed to be paid to the clubs that had the largest television exposure. Moving straight to the next season would unlock a new domestic broadcast contract of a billion euros.
An emergency board meeting has been scheduled for Thursday, when the league will try to make a decision on its next steps, including whether to declare the 2019-20 season annulled and whether to declare a final classification based on the current standings. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, said entrance to its competitions, like the Champions League, must be determined by sporting merit.
Only time will tell, Caiazzo said, whether the French prime minister made the right call.
“There are two hypotheses,” he said. “The first one, that the Germans, the Spanish, Italians and English start and they play and finish their championships, get money for TV — and everyone will say, ‘The French, they are completely stupid.’
“Or you have a problem in those countries, the virus comes back and some teams, they cannot play because of virus, and it’s a big mess and people will say, ‘The French were right, we made a mistake.’”
For now, and based on the constantly evolving prognosis for the containment of the coronavirus, the plan is to start the new French season without fans in August, before opening up stadiums in September. Whether that will happen remains, as most things right now, up in the air, Caiazzo said.
“They are in a labyrinth,” he said. “And they have doors which they are opening and closing: Nobody knows the end of this story.”