Uefa edges SPFL closer to declaring Celtic champions

Hearts would be relegated if season is called early

Celtic manager Neil Lennon is close to getting his hands on the Ladbrokes Premiership trophy once again. Picture: SNS
Celtic manager Neil Lennon is close to getting his hands on the Ladbrokes Premiership trophy once again. Picture: SNS

Uefa has given the SPFL the green light to call time on the Premiership season if either government restrictions or “insurmountable” financial issues prevent them from resuming the 2019-20 campaign. The SPFL board is now likely to implement its contentiously-achieved resolution from member clubs which grants them authority to decide final league placings on a points-per-game basis and would declare Celtic champions and relegate Hearts with eight rounds of fixtures still outstanding.

Along with their counterparts in Belgium, who were the first to declare an intention to end their domestic season amid the coronavirus pandemic, the SPFL formally approached Uefa after European football’s governing body initially suggested places in next season’s Champions League and Europa League could be denied for clubs from countries who failed to complete 2019-20 on the pitch.

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That stance has softened in the past couple of weeks and Uefa’s all-powerful executive committee has now agreed some countries may have “legitimate reasons” to curtail the season.

Hearts will be relegated if the SPFL calls the season early. Picture: SNS

Following a videconference of the committee chaired by Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin yesterday, it set out the two criteria which would be regarded as valid.

The first would be an official directive from national governments banning sports events for a period which made it impossible to finish the 2019-20 season before a new start date for the 2020-21 campaign.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, announcing her Government’s potential exit strategy from lockdown yesterday, again warned that “big gatherings and events are likely to be off for some months to come”, although she stressed this is not yet a “firm decision”.

The second reason set out by Uefa’s ExCo relates to financial issues which would put the future of leagues and their member clubs at risk. This is likely to be cited by the SPFL who last week called time on the Championship, League 1 and League 2 in order to distribute end-of-season prize money to clubs.

While the SPFL board now has the wriggle room it was hoping for to make the same decision on the Premiership, Uefa stressed that its preference and strong recommendation is to try to conclude all leagues, behind closed doors if necesary.

A Uefa statement read: “As a result of representations by the football authorities in Belgium and Scotland, the committee recognises the issues raised and approved the guidelines on eligibility principles for 2020-21 Uefa club competitions.

“The guidelines reflect the principle that admission to Uefa club competitions is always based on sporting merit. Therefore, Uefa urges national associations and leagues to explore all possible options to play all top domestic competitions giving access to Uefa club competitions to their natural conclusion. However, Uefa stresses that the health of players, spectators and all those involved in football as well as the public at large must remain the primary concern at this time.

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“The ideal scenario, should the pandemic situation permit it, is to have the currently suspended domestic competitions completed enabling football clubs to qualify for Uefa club competitions on sporting merit in their original format. Should this outcome not be possible, in particular due to calendar issues, it would be preferable that suspended domestic competitions would restart with a different format in a manner which would still facilitate clubs to qualify on sporting merit.

“National associations and/or leagues might have legitimate reasons to prematurely terminate their domestic competitions, in particular in the following cases:

l Existence of an official order prohibiting sports events so that the domestic competitions cannot be completed before a date that would make it possible to complete the current

season in good time before the next season to start.

l Insurmountable economic problems which make finishing the season impossible because it would put at risk the long-term financial stability of the domestic competition and/or clubs.

“If a domestic competition is prematurely terminated for legitimate reasons in accordance with the above conditions, Uefa would require the national association concerned to select clubs for the Uefa club competitions 2020-21 based on sporting merit in the 2019-20 domestic competitions.”

Uefa say deciding league placings to determine which clubs qualify for the Champions League and Europa League should be “based on objective, transparent and non-discriminatory principles. National associations and leagues should otherwise have the ability to decide the final positions in their domestic competitions, having regard to the specific circumstances of each competition”.

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Uefa reserved the right to deny entry to tournaments if they regard clubs as not having been selected “on sporting merit” or there “is a public perception of unfairness in the qualification”.

Celtic’s qualification for the Champions League in the event of the Premiership not being completed would almost certainly be contested by Rangers. The Ibrox club angrily opposed the SPFL’s resolution on the issue and have consistently stated their belief the season should be completed on the pitch. They are 13 points behind Premiership leaders Celtic with a game in hand and 27 points left to play for.

Rangers last week stated they would “continue to examine all legal options” to challenge an early end to the league campaign.

Responding to the Uefa statement, a spokesperson for the SPFL/Scottish FA Joint Response Group said: “The coronavirus outbreak is affecting leagues across Europe in many different ways depending, amongst other things, on their financial position, their broadcasting deals and the percentage of their clubs’ income derived from gate receipts.

“The approach from individual governments varies according to the severity and timing of the lockdown and their success in dealing with the outbreak. As a result, there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to the challenges facing the 55 countries. Today’s Uefa announcement acknowledges that different leagues will have to carefully consider their own unique circumstances before deciding how best to progress.”

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