Football: English Premier League suspended as coronavirus outbreak spreads among clubs' staff

French league and European matches also called off

Leicester City's James Maddison (right) shoots a goal during the match between Leicester City and Aston Villa on March 9, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS
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The league said it had taken a "unanimous" decision to stop playing with immediate effect at an emergency meeting. PHOTO: REUTERS

(THE GUARDIAN, AFP) - The English Premier League, the English Football League and the Women's Super League and Championship on Friday (March 13) suspended all matches until April 3 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

An unprecedented development, it follows the revelation overnight that several Premier League clubs have staff, including players and coaches, who are displaying symptoms of the virus. They include Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi.

"Following a meeting of shareholders today, it was unanimously decided to suspend the Premier League with the intention of returning on April 4, subject to medical advice and conditions at the time," the Premier League said in a statement.

Everton also announced that their entire first-team squad and coaching staff have been told to self-isolate after a player reported symptoms consistent with Covid-19.

Leicester City had three players go into self-isolation on Thursday, and Bournemouth said goalkeeper Artur Boruc and four employees were also self-isolating.

"Above all, we wish Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi speedy recoveries, and everyone else affected by Covid-19," said Premier League chief executive Richard Masters.

"In this unprecedented situation, we are working closely with our clubs, government, the FA and EFL and can reassure everyone the health and welfare of players, staff and supporters are our priority."

In Europe, Uefa has announced the postponement of all pending fixtures in the Champions League and Europa League to an as-yet-unspecified date.

The EFL, which heads up the three divisions below the Premier League, said in a statement: "The FA, Premier League, EFL and Barclays FA Women's Super League and FA Women's Championship have collectively agreed to postpone the professional game in England until April 3 at the earliest. This action, which will be kept under constant review, has been taken due to the increasing numbers of clubs taking steps to isolate their players and staff because of the Covid-19 virus."

The Six Nations rugby clash between Wales and Scotland in Cardiff on Saturday, with a crowd of 70,000 expected, was postponed, the Welsh Rugby Union announced on Friday, just hours after being given the go-ahead.

Also, the French football season has been suspended "until further notice" because of the coronavirus outbreak, the LFP, which runs the elite Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, announced.

In a statement, the league said it had taken a "unanimous" decision to stop playing with immediate effect at an emergency meeting, having previously said games would continue to be played behind closed doors until mid-April.

The move came after French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced that schools in France would close indefinitely to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and urged people over 70 and the infirm to stay home.

"As the president of the republic stressed yesterday, the collective interest must be placed above all else. The urgency today is to curb the epidemic, protect the most vulnerable and avoid travel," the league said in a statement.

The move means France follows other leading European leagues in closing down the season, with all sport in Italy stopped until early April and the next two rounds of matches in La Liga in Spain postponed.

In addition, the Dutch and Swiss domestic leagues have been put on hold until the end of the month, while Portugal has announced that its top two divisions will be suspended "indefinitely".

England's two friendly matches at home to Italy and Denmark later this month have been postponed.

The men's and women's FA Cup competitions have also been suspended. However, the authorities still hope to be able to resume and complete the season at a later date.

"Despite the challenges, it is the Premier League's aim to reschedule the displaced fixtures, including those played by Academy sides, when it is safe to do so," added the Premier League statement.

'Lack of leadership'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said on Thursday that the government was considering the question of banning major public events such as sporting fixtures, but was not ready to do so yet.

However, the news of Arteta and Hudson-Odoi's positive tests in the last 24 hours forced the English football authorities to act.

"I don't think we had any great leadership last night listening to the prime minister. I was totally underwhelmed by the lack of leadership and clear message in terms of what was said in that press conference," said Watford manager Nigel Pearson.

"Hopefully the Premier League will make strong decisions based on what is right for everybody within the game."

Hudson-Odoi said he had already "recovered" from the virus but will continue to self-isolate. "As you may be aware I had the virus for the last couple of days, which I've recovered from," the England international posted in a video on social media.

"I'm following the health guidelines and self-isolated myself from everybody for the week. I hope to be back on the pitch very soon."

All matches in Scotland, including Sunday's Old Firm derby between Rangers and Celtic have also been indefinitely suspended.

Uefa, European football's governing body, has postponed all Champions League and Europa League games for the coming week and will have a crisis meeting on Tuesday to determine the fate of those competitions and Euro 2020.

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