Scottish soccer isn’t just in lockdown. It’s in meltdown, too.
And the chaos engulfing its increasingly botched attempts to deliver a resolution to the suspended season is a warning sign to other European leagues who are weighing up how to conclude a pandemic-affected campaign.
The Scottish game never seems too far from a crisis, and it has been plunged into another one over the past week — with even an American library finding itself bizarrely dragged into the mess.
The saga began on Wednesday when the Scottish Professional Football League announced that all 42 clubs in the league system would be asked to vote on whether the three tiers below the top-flight Premiership — the 12-team division containing the biggest two clubs, Celtic and Rangers — should be canceled, with play in Scotland unlikely to be able to restart until July amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Final season placings would be determined by the points per game of each club, with a termination allowing the 2020-21 season to start on time and financially stricken clubs to receive much-needed end-of-season payments.
Separately, approving a cancellation would allow a decision to be made later on the Premiership, should it be deemed the remaining games in the top flight could not be played.
The SPFL requested — rather than ordered — that votes be cast by last Friday and 75% approval was needed from each of the leagues for the resolution to be passed.
Even though only 39 of the 42 clubs officially cast votes by the deadline, the SPFL published the results anyway, showing that the threshold for passing the plan was met by the Premiership and the bottom two leagues. However, crucially, the second-tier Championship was still waiting for one vote — that of Dundee — which would determine the result of that division and therefore the whole SPFL plan.
The result has been utter chaos.
Rangers, having quickly come out against cancelling the season — which would effectively hand the title to fierce rival and runaway leader Celtic — had also proposed a plan to the SPFL that would see clubs receive prize money in advance without a declaration having to be made on the cancellation of league play.
The SPFL said this would not be viable, prompting Rangers to call for a suspension of SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster and his legal adviser pending an external investigation because the club had been handed evidence that raised “serious concerns surrounding the SPFL’s processes” relating to the vote. “Rangers will not be bullied into silence,” the club said.
Meanwhile, confusion reigned over the vote of Dundee — now the kingmaker of the SPFL plan. The contents of a thread on a WhatsApp group of clubs was disclosed by the CEO of Dundee’s second-tier rival, Inverness, apparently showing Dundee had voted against the plan. The SPFL said the ballot paper hadn’t been received.
Then, on Sunday, there was a statement from the chair of Hearts, the last-placed team in the Premiership, which would be in line for relegation if the season was canceled. Ann Budge questioned whether the SPFL was “attempting to unduly influence the members’ decision-making process” by pushing clubs toward a decision it has already made, and raised the possibility of a reconstruction of the league system.
Bringing some levity to the whole situation was an amusing intervention by Santa Fe Public Library in New Mexico, whose Twitter handle — SFPL — had been wrongly used by a Scottish journalist in the midst of the chaos.
“You guys have done it again!” the library posted.
“We are Santa Fe Public Library, and I promise we haven’t voted on anything football-related, and even if we did, who would care? But we do always love being included in the soccer world.”
Where Scottish soccer goes from here is anyone’s guess. Dundee’s vote remains crucial — sections of the Scottish media reported on Tuesday that the club was going to change its vote, allowing the SPFL plan to go ahead — but some are suggesting the whole process is tainted and should either start over, or be reviewed and new proposals made.
If seasons are terminated prematurely because of the coronavirus, it would likely trigger legal action from clubs adversely affected by the decision, whether they are battling for titles, in the running for European qualification, or fighting to avoid relegation.
Domestic leagues also have been warned by UEFA not to abandon competitions yet. Doing so, European soccer’s governing body has said, could see teams blocked from qualifying for the Champions League and Europa League as they are determined based on final positions in domestic standings.
Belgium’s top division has already recommended ending its season with the current standings declared final. Confirmation of that could come at a general assembly meeting on April 24.
If Scotland was to be stopped from qualifying for European competition, it would be a doubly cruel blow given that the country is in line to have two qualification places in the Champions League for the 2021-22 season.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80