COVID-19 crisis could lead to massive fixture congestion in world soccer

The world is only a few days into its soccer pause, but if you really wanted to watch matches, even last weekend, you could have found Hungarian or Turkish league games to watch.

But now the global lockdown on soccer has truly begun. And, we’re all jonesing for any sort of action. Video-game streams. Highlights of classic games. Debates over what are the greatest matches of all-time.

When the game comes back, though, will it be too much of a good thing? Because when the signal is given to kick off again, we could be facing fixture congestion like we’ve never seen before. And as much as we miss the game right now, when things do return to normal, we can’t then be throwing match after match after match at players – the fixture congestion that threatens at the other end of the COVID-19 crisis could be as damaging to the game as not playing at all.

Do you love the process of important matches being played by rotated squads? Or superstars missing major games because of fatigue or the injuries that can more easily occur because they don’t have enough recovery time? Then we need to ensure a sane schedule when the games come back, and that’s not going to be easy.

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On Wednesday, FIFA announced it approved the proposals to move both the Copa America and Euro tournaments from 2020 to a June-July slot in 2021. Easy enough, right?

The plan is to slide the major tournaments into a time period that would have been filled by the Club World Cup. That tournament will be postponed. Euro and Copa America, as it stands, would come after the June international window — which has World Cup qualifiers scheduled — and before the September international window.

In theory, the rescheduled tournaments wouldn’t do too much damage to the World Cup qualifying schedule. In theory. Did I stress “in theory” enough?

But remember that because of COVID-19, CONMEBOL has already announced the postponement of the first two rounds of South American qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. So, a home has to be found for those games.

As well, if the June 2021 World Cup qualifying window holds — and it likely won’t — many European sides would be asked to jump right from qualifying games into Euro 2021.

Of course, there’s the whole question of how domestic seasons will unfold next year after what could be a lengthy layoff in 2020-21? Could some leagues move to a summer calendar? Could leagues be playing later into the spring than normal? How close would the gaps be between the end of domestic leagues and the starts of these rescheduled tournaments?

FIFA pledged Wednesday that it will be “ensuring appropriate global solutions are eventually found for competitions at all levels considering the needs of all stakeholders while always keeping the health of all participants as a first priority.”

Italicize and stress “health of all participants as a first priority.” That’s the important part.

In an open letter to football fans issued on St. Patrick’s Day, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said the next challenge for soccer’s world governing body is finding a solution to the fixture congestion which could impact a series of leagues and tournaments. On his to-do list:

“To discuss the impact of these changes on the calendar with the confederations, member associations and other stakeholders and work on the current International Match Calendar with the objective of finding appropriate solutions for everyone to be proposed as soon as the circumstances allow, hopefully before the end of April.”

Remember that Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying process is currently scheduled to begin in September, so file that tidbit away, Canadian soccer followers. There is no Concacaf side scheduled to play at the next Copa America, but Asian qualifying could be affected as Australia is in the tournament, as well as World Cup host Qatar. Of course, Qatar’s schedule is the least important of all because, as the host, its qualification for the 2022 World Cup is guaranteed. It’s Australia that’s the wild card, here.

One thing that works in FIFA’s favour is that the 2022 World Cup is scheduled for November and December, not in its usual summer (that is, summer in the northern hemisphere) slot. That should give a bit of wiggle room.

But no matter how the scheduling breaks down, players around the world are looking at an exhausting gauntlet of games, for both club and country in 2021. You have to start wondering if the quality of play will suffer, or if national sides will need to rotate squads more than they have in the past. Should roster rules be altered so national sides can carry more players? Is there a way to reduce the number of qualifying games that need to be held ahead of Qatar 2022?

With so many matches potentially coming at players in such short order, with Euro and Copa America plopped right in the middle of World Cup qualifying, is this a time to think about changes to the laws of the game, even if they are temporary measures to deal with what looks to be a congested 2021? More subs available per match?

FIFA has promised it will look after the health of the participants (the players). It needs to keep that promise, or we’re looking at a schedule next year filled with games of tired players struggling to get to 90 minutes.