Soccer

Divisions appear over Premier League's neutral venues plan, legal action fears

by Rob Harris

AP

English Premier League clubs opposed to resuming the season in empty, neutral stadiums were urged by the Crystal Palace chairman on Sunday to accept the plans or the "game might never fully recover."

Steve Parish warned there could be years of legal challenges if the Premier League is curtailed, with French clubs already exploring damages claims over their season prematurely ending last week.

A leading sports lawyer also raised the prospect of players refusing to take to the field if they feel unsafe playing as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Parish's support for the league's "Project Restart" proposal came as Brighton and West Ham publicly resisted playing their remaining home games in neutral venues as they fight relegation.

The league is working with authorities to find a way for players to resume group training and play games by June at the earliest while also ensuring that does not spread COVID-19 infections.

"We need to try to play if we can make it safe," Parish tweeted. "I believe we can and should continue however imperfect the other elements: neutral venues empty stadia, etc. If we can't make it work then I fear for next season. The game might never fully recover."

Government rulings led to the French and Dutch league seasons ending last week. While Paris Saint-Germain was crowned French champion with 10 rounds of games remaining, Ajax — which was first on goal difference — will not be awarded the Dutch title.

Palace has little to play for, sitting in the middle of the table, but Parish said he wants the season completed for "reasons of sporting integrity" and to protect the league's finances. Liverpool is 25 points clear with nine games remaining.

"I want to crown Liverpool champions and give every other club a fair crack at the best league position they can achieve," Parish said. "I certainly don't want to have difficult conversations about curtailing, voiding and points per game.

"The ramifications of each are complex and could involve legal challenges that run on for months, if not years. But, yes, it is partly about the money. And we should all care about the money."

The Premier League fears losses of more than ₤1 billion (around $1.3 billion) from an incomplete campaign as broadcasting commitments will not be met.

The league has not commented on opposition to playing games in neutral stadiums, only saying after Friday's call with clubs that they all wanted to complete the season if it was safe.

"Ending the season early would undoubtedly leave the Premier League more exposed to costly and reputationally damaging legal action from certain disgruntled clubs, unhappy with the difficult decisions that would ultimately follow in determining league positions," lawyer Simon Leaf, head of sport at Mishcon de Reya, told The Associated Press.

"After all, a significant portion of the revenues that the clubs receive from broadcasters and sponsors is related to where the club finishes in the table."

Players would have to face regular COVID-19 tests to show they were clear of the disease.

"We could still see players themselves take their own legal stand by refusing to take the field for fear of their own safety and clubs unhappy with the venue allocations threaten action," Leaf said.

It has been almost two months since the competition was suspended and the league's rule book has no guidelines for resolving standings if a team cannot play all 38 games.

"The league will need to continue to manage the situation delicately in order to keep all sides on board and avoid league places and revenues being determined in the courtroom rather than on the pitch," Leaf said.

The national lockdown remains in place through at least Thursday in Britain where more than 28,000 people have died in around two months in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for the new coronavirus.

The Premier League faced heavy criticism Sunday from one of the main pundits for the broadcaster that provides the league's single biggest revenue stream.

Gary Neville, the former England and Manchester United defender turned Sky Sports commentator, said the Premier League was having a "nightmare" and was "hiding, scared to death of communicating" its plans fully in public.

"No one wants to be responsible for this one! Just in case the unthinkable happens," Neville tweeted. "I'd respect them more if they said 'We accept the increase in Health Risk but it's one we are willing to take.' They won't as they are frightened to death!"

Some Premier League players returned to club training facilities last week to resume individual work. Players in Spain and Italy will be allowed to do the same from Monday.

While the leagues in England, Italy and Spain will not start until at least June, the German top flight is hoping to resume this month.

But the Bundesliga's plans were unsettled by three positive tests for coronavirus last week at Cologne, reportedly including two players.

Cologne said Sunday that players will only resume training after two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests, ruling out the need for the entire squad and coaching staff to go into quarantine.

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