Belgian clubs risk UEFA ban as league refuses to reverse decision to end season

Jupiler Pro League

By Samindra Kunti

April 3 – In an unprecedented move Belgium has abandoned the rest of the season and crowned Club Brugge champions, despite UEFA issuing a warning against ending leagues early, and threatening expulsion from the Champions League and Europa League.

The Belgian league, however, refused to back down in a conference call with UEFA on Friday, leaving its decision to end the season unchanged.

The cancellation of the league is a doomsday scenario that the majority of clubs in Europe want to avoid in a bid to retain the TV rights income that is the lifeblood of the football industry. Belgium is the first top-tier European league to cancel the rest of its season following the outbreak of the coronavirus.  The current standings will be declared final, crowning league leaders Club Brugge champions.

On Friday, the Belgian league, in a conference call with UEFA and the Belgian Football Association (KBVB) defended the move to end the season and even went a step further by telling UEFA that it disagreed with the strategy to force leagues to complete the season.

“They [directors of the Belgian league] also indicated that they would not agree to an approach that forces leagues to continue their leagues in the current general health crisis, on pain of being excluded from next season’s European club leagues,” wrote the Belgian league in statement on Friday following the conference call.

UEFA’s letter on Thursday had come in a matter of hours after Belgium’s recommendation to cancel the season, a decision that was extensively explained in a statement.

“The Board of Directors took note of the recommendations of Dr. Van Ranst and the government that it is highly unlikely that games with the public will be played before June 30. The current situation also makes it very unclear whether and when a resumption of collective training courses can be foreseen at all,” wrote the Belgian league on Thursday.

“Even if games behind closed doors could theoretically be possible, the additional pressure they place on health and order services should be avoided. Moreover, decisions by local authorities threaten to make a joint course of match days impossible.”

On Thursday evening, the European governing body, however, reacted sternly in a letter to its members. The letter, signed by UEFA, ECA and the Euro Leagues bodies, seemed to convey a simple message: no one should step out of line. It is believed that the Belgian league’s Board of Directors did discuss the possibility that UEFA would threaten expulsion.

UEFA informed its members that a concrete plan to resume play in July or August will be rolled out by mid-May.  The letters casts doubts over Belgium’s decision to cancel the season and implies that Club Brugge’s guaranteed group stage place in the Champions League is at risk if the league’s plan to end the season is approved in a fortnight’s time. Champions League qualification is dependent on the completion of domestic leagues and UEFA wrote that “a premature termination would cast doubts about the fulfilment of such condition”. It was a stark reminder that ultimately the European governing body is the gatekeeper of its own competitions.

At this stage, the Belgian cancellation remains a recommendation until the league’s general assembly meets on April 15. The general assembly, however, is expected to rubber-stamp the recommendation.  In a conference call on Thursday, the league’s board of directors agreed that that the league should not resume. Last week, 17 clubs in Belgium’s top two divisions had called for the season to be cancelled.

“The Board of Directors has unanimously decided that it is not desirable to continue the competition after June 30,” continued the statement. “Given the above elements, the Board of Directors has formulated a unanimous advice to the General Meeting not to resume the competitions of the season ’19 -’20 and to accept the current state of the Jupiler Pro League as final classification [subject to the decisions of the licensing committee].”

A working group will resolve which clubs, if any, will represent Belgium in next season’s European competitions. The domestic cup final, with a ticket for the Europa League at stake, had been due to take place on March 22.

The financial fallout for the clubs is still being counted. In the 2018-19 season, Belgium clubs combined a total loss of €87 million. This season’s TV rights income has been distributed to the clubs, but whether broadcaster Telenet can contest the league’s decision to cancel the rest of the season and reclaim some money from its €80 million a year deal remains in question. Last February, however, the league secured a new TV rights deal with broadcaster Eleven Sports, worth €100 million a season.

Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1591095678labto1591095678ofdlr1591095678owedi1591095678sni@o1591095678fni1591095678