By Philip O’Connor
(Reuters) – The Euro 2020 soccer Championship, trumpeted as a continent-wide feast of football to mark the 60th anniversary of UEFA’s flagship tournament, was postponed for a year on Tuesday as the coronavirus pandemic claimed its biggest sporting casualty yet.
The fate of the 24-nation, month-long showpiece due to start in June, had hung in the balance ever since Europe’s domestic leagues shut down in the wake of the sweeping health crisis, which has killed around 7,500 people worldwide.
UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, relayed the news after an emergency video conference with its 55 affiliated national federations and representatives from clubs and leagues.
“It was important that, as the governing body of European football, UEFA led the process and made the biggest sacrifice,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said in a statement confirming what the Norwegian and Swedish FAs had leaked earlier.
“We are at the helm of a sport that vast numbers of people live and breathe that has been laid low by this invisible and fast-moving opponent. At times like these… the football community needs to show responsibility, unity, solidarity.”
Even as the video conference was ongoing, Norway’s FA broke ranks to confirm via Twitter that the tournament had been postponed for the first time in its history. Swedish FA chairman Karl-Erik Nilsson also sent a message to Reuters during the video conference. “Postponed until 11/6- 11/7 2021,” he said.
UEFA confirmed those dates shortly after.
On a frantic day for soccer organisers, south American confederation CONMEBOL agreed to delay this year’s Copa America, due to take place in Argentina and Colombia, to 2021.
UEFA’s decision was widely expected, not least because of pressure from Europe’s powerful domestic leagues wrestling with the nightmare scenario of incomplete competitions.
“The move will help all domestic competitions, currently on hold due to the COVID-19 emergency, to be completed,” UEFA said.
Playoff matches were due to be held on March 26 and 31 to decide the full lineup of nations for Europe’s once every four-year flagship tournament — second only to FIFA’s World Cup in terms of prestige in soccer.
They could now be played in the international window at the start of June, subject to a UEFA review.
The new coronavirus has infected almost 180,000 people worldwide since emerging in China, and most of Europe is in lockdown in a desperate bid to stem its advance.
All five of Europe’s top domestic soccer leagues — England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany — are suspended, along with the Champions League, Europa League and World Cup qualifiers.
With the Euros and Copa America postponed, however, it provides a window for domestic competitions to resume.
A joint statement later from European soccer’s various stakeholders said there was a commitment to complete all domestic leagues and European club competitions by June 30, should the situation improve.
European leagues had urged UEFA to give priority to completing domestic competitions, fearing a loss of ticket and match-day revenue while still having to pay player salaries.
“UEFA tabled a range of options so that competitions can finish this season safely, and I am proud of the response of my colleagues across European football,” Ceferin said.
While the domestic leagues will welcome the news, next year’s international calendar looks challenging.
UEFA confirmed the Women’s European Championship, scheduled for England in June and July 2021, would be re-scheduled, as would the Nations League Finals and Under 21 Euros.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he would recommend that next year’s expanded Club World Cup in China, which now clashes with the European Championship and Copa America, should be moved “later in 2021, in 2022 or in 2023”.
“Cooperation, mutual respect and understanding must be the guiding principles for all decision makers to have in mind at this crucial moment in time,” he said.
While huge challenges are ahead, for now there is a sense of togetherness from the soccer family in tackling an emergency that transcends the sport.
“In the big picture, football is a really small matter,” Tim Sparv, captain of tournament debutants Finland, said.
“Now it’s about life and death and trying to control the spread of the virus.”
The European Championship began in 1960 with a four-nation finals in which the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia to lift the trophy.
The most recent edition in 2016, in France, included 24 nations for the first time. The final, in which Portugal beat the hosts, was watched by a television audience of 284 million.
While European fans will be disappointed not to have a tournament to watch this summer, British broadcaster ITV, which shares the rights with the BBC, said the direct impact would be a saving of up to 50 million pounds ($60.30 million) in scheduling costs, though it would lose out on potential advertising revenue.
“We look forward to broadcasting the Euros and providing a significant marketing opportunity for advertisers in 2021, a year which does not have any other large sports tournament,” a spokesman said.
The 2020 edition, brainchild of former UEFA president Michel Platini, was supposed to be the first staged across the continent, rather than by a single or joint host nations.
The host cities are Glasgow, Dublin, Bilbao, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Munich, Rome, St Petersburg, Bucharest, Budapest and Baku, with the climax set for London’s Wembley Stadium.
($1 = 0.8296 pounds)
(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle; Writing by Martyn Herman, Brian Homewood and Ossian Shine; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Pritha Sarkar and Toby Davis)