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Coronavirus: Will Europe's football seasons restart as lockdowns ease up?

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Bournemouth's goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale saves during the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Bournemouth at Anfield, Liverpool, March 7, 2020.
Bournemouth's goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale saves during the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Bournemouth at Anfield, Liverpool, March 7, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jon Super
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This article originally published on April 18 has been updated.

The month of May is usually the most exciting for football supporters as European club seasons reach their climax, with league titles up for grabs and promotion and relegation battles fought out.

Instead, stadiums lie empty and despite the easing of coronavirus lockdowns, most end-of-campaign tussles have been left in suspense, with some abandoned altogether.

Football authorities have been considering ways to revive and save their seasons. But countries have taken different approaches: the French and Dutch leagues have been cancelled on government orders, while among the major championships only Germany has managed a quick return to action.

Europe's governing body UEFA acknowledges that circumstances mean seasons may not be finished. But it needs clarity regarding qualification for next season's European competitions.

Here is a look at how things stand in the main European leagues and when football may resume.

PREMIER LEAGUE

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Everton's Richarlison, right, with Arsenal's Shkodran Mustafi during the English Premier League soccer match at Emirates stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

The Premier League received conditional government backing on May 14 to resume in June. Matches can take place as long as they become more accessible to fans shut out of stadiums and the world's richest football competition spreads its wealth more across the English game.

The top division is the most advanced in its planning to restart amid concerns the three other professional football leagues in England could lack the funding to restart without ticket revenue from supporters.

While the national coronavirus lockdown is starting to be eased, mass gatherings are still banned and fans are not allowed to attend sports events. The Premier League, though, needs to complete its season in order to fulfil lucrative broadcasting contracts.

Players are still having to maintain social distancing in training. The next step would be allowing contact training among sports teams, if there is no new spike in COVID-19 cases nationally.

The authorities will monitor the progress of training before making a final decision. "We have to be slow. We have to be measured," said England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam.

Planning has been stepped up to try to resume matches in neutral stadiums, with the EPL holding separate talks with the government and its clubs to determine the necessary health measures and logistics.

Club executives were informed by the league that safety certificates were likely to be granted for only eight to 10 stadiums and no team would be able to play at home to prevent fans congregating outside.

But the move to play matches at neutral grounds is not popular within the EPL, and relegation-threatened clubs have led opposition to the idea.

Individually, teams have either nine or 10 matches left to play. Liverpool -- aiming for the club's first league title for 30 years -- are top of the table with a commanding 25-point lead over Manchester City.

Lower-league professional clubs in England are also determined to finish the season, but have been told they might not be allowed to have fans at their matches until 2021.

LA LIGA

AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Real Madrid take on Barcelona in a La Liga match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 1, 2020.AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

La Liga President Javier Tebas has identified June 12 as the earliest potential date for the resumption of La Liga matches behind closed doors.

But he added that no decision had been taken and the go-ahead would have to be given by Spanish health authorities.

Five players were diagnosed as positive for COVID-19 after a first round of testing.

Football in Spain has been suspended since mid-March. Players have been allowed to resume training from early May, although the sports minister cautioned games might not be allowed before the summer.

The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has said it plans to award next season's European places according to teams' current league positions, if La Liga cannot be completed.

That means current league leaders Barcelona would qualify for the Champions League, with the teams now in 2nd, 3rd and 4th places: Real Madrid, Sevilla and Real Sociedad. The next placed teams, including Atletico Madrid, would qualify for the Europa League.

BUNDESLIGA

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
Portraits of fans are put up in the stand to make up for the lack of real supporters at Borussia Moenchengladbach's ground, April 16, 2020.AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Germany's Bundesliga was due to restart on the weekend of May 16, with all 18 clubs playing over Saturday, Sunday and Monday night — and all nine games televised.

The green light for top flight matches to resume behind closed doors was given by Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 6.

"The Bundesliga can resume from the second half of May in compliance with the rules that have been introduced," Merkel said after a meeting with the regional authorities on the easing of the country's lockdown.

"Today's decision is good news for the Bundesliga and the 2nd Bundesliga," Christian Seifert, the managing director of the Bundesliga, said in a statement.

Seifert highlighted "the great responsibility for the clubs and their employees to implement the medical and organisational requirements in a disciplined manner".

"Games without stadium spectators are not an ideal solution for anyone," Seifert said. "In a crisis threatening the very existence of some clubs, however, it is the only way to keep the leagues in their current form."

But fans groups were initially opposed to the restart in such circumstances and at least one opinion poll suggested a majority of the public at large are also against it.

All leagues have been at a standstill since mid-March. Clubs resumed training with players in small groups in April.

The DFL (German Football League) has confirmed ten cases of the coronavirus in the top two divisions since on May 2, three people at Bundesliga club FC Cologne tested positive.

A ban on all large gatherings in Germany until at least the end of August will remain. So even if next season begins on schedule, it seems the first games will be played without fans present.

SERIE A

AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File
A Serie A match between AC Milan and Genoa is played behind closed doors at the San Siro stadium, Milan, Italy, March 8, 2020.AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File

The 20 teams in Serie A agreed on May 13 to resume competition on June 13 in empty stadiums.

The date is subject to approval by the Italian government, however.

“With regard to the restart of sporting activity, it has been indicated, with respect to the decisions of the government and in compliance with the medical protocols to protect the players and staff, the date of June 13 for the resumption of the league,” the league's governing body said in a statement.

Earlier, Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said full team training would restart on May 18 after a revised medical protocol was approved amid the coronavirus pandemic. The clubs have already resumed training on an individual basis.

Players and backroom staff will be closely monitored and tested and if one person tests positive for COVID-19, the whole club will have to go into quarantine for two weeks.

Serie A has been suspended since March 9 when the national lockdown was imposed, after some matches took place behind closed doors. With 12 fixtures left to play, Juventus are the current league leaders, one point ahead of Lazio.

LIGUE 1

Damien Meyer / AFP
A French Ligue 1 match between Stade Rennais and Montpellier, at the Roazhon Park stadium in Rennes, northwestern France on March 8, 2020.Damien Meyer / AFP

France's top-flight Ligue 1 has been ordered by the government to cancel its 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. But many clubs have said they may appeal against the decision.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced on April 28 that major sports fixtures -- including those behind closed doors -- would not be permitted in the country before September.

The French League (LFP) announced that the final standings would be based on a points-per game ratio. It means that Paris Saint-Germain have been declared Ligue 1 champions for the third consecutive year.

Lorient have been crowned Ligue 2 champions and will be promoted to the top division with second-place Lens.

Amiens and Toulouse have been relegated to Ligue 2. Both clubs, as well as Olympique Lyonnais, say they will reserve the right to appeal the decision. Lyon, in fifth place a week before the last match day, will finish seventh, and out of European competition for the first time since 1996-97.

Lyon were still competing in the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League when play was halted on April 1.

The French Football Federation (FFF) had already decided to put an end to all lower league, amateur and youth football in France.

REST OF EUROPE

The Belgian Pro League became the first major European league to be cancelled because of coronavirus on 15 April.

Club Brugge, currently 15 points ahead of KAA Gent, would therefore be declared champions.

There was one match of the regular season remaining when the league was suspended, with relegation and play-off decisions still contestable.

In a similar vein, the Dutch Football Association “intends not to continue” the season after the national government extended a ban on major events until 1 September.

Ajax and AZ Alkmaar are currently leading the Eredivisie level on points after 26 games, with Ajax ahead on just goal difference.

Clubs training schedules have also been suspended in Scotland until further notice and at least until June 10.

But in Portugal, the government said at the end of April that the Primera Liga would be allowed to resume on May 30.

Switzerland's government gave teams permission to start training again on May 11. A tentative date of June 8 has been given for the resumption of matches empty stadiums. A decision is due to be taken in late May.

And Poland bucked the trend by becoming one of the first countries in Europe to set a date to resume a league that was suspended in mid-March. Subject to the country's overall health situation, it plans to restart its season on May 29 after the government decided to ease lockdown restrictions. A digital streaming service is planned to help the Ekstraklasa reach new viewers.

The Austrian Football Association has been given the go-ahead by the government to return to action on June 2, the OFB confirmed on Twitter.

Clubs in the Czech Republic have approved a plan to restart the season. The top division will resume with a game between Teplice and Liberec on May 23. The second division will kick off the following week.

Turkey has plans to resume its season on June 12 and complete the fixture list by July 26.

One European country has stubbornly resisted imposing any restrictions despite the coronavirus outbreak. Belarus made headlines by ploughing regardless with its league programme. But players have expressed concerns and lately matches have reportedly been boycotted by many fans.

As some leagues across Europe consider playing matches behind closed doors, medical experts are warning that playing games without fans does not eliminate the risk of COVID-19 being spread by the hundreds of people still required inside stadiums.

“There are real worries about infection risks,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffman, general secretary of global players’ union FIFPRO. “There are worries about what that means for their families and friends that they engage with. They are worried very much that they represent something in society that might give a bad influence.”

EUROPEAN COMPETITIONS

On 23 March UEFA took the decision to postpone the men's and women's finals of the Champions League and Europa League.

UEFA have acknowledged that domestic league seasons across Europe may not be finished for "legitimate reasons", and say national associations would need to select clubs to qualify for Europe in 2020-21.

But UEFA have stated that they could "refuse or evaluate" selected teams if necessary.

UEFA's guidelines for club competitions say that qualification to the Champions League and Europa League is "always based on sporting merit".

Clubs have therefore been urged to "explore all possible options" to finish domestic seasons and use "a different format" if needed.