soccer field

Scottish football’s response to COVID-19 highlights the conundrum facing European football

May 14, 2020

With the exception of Belarus, league football across Europe came to a halt in mid-March due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, certain leagues across the continent have decided how the rest of the season will be treated; the Dutch Eredivisie was cancelled with no promotion, relegation or champions, whilst the French Ligue 1 was also cancelled, but with PSG being awarded the title and Amiens and Toulouse being relegated. Whilst legal challenges to these decisions appear on the horizon in the Netherlands and France respectively, it is Scottish football’s response to COVID-19 that has perhaps been most controversial.

On 8 April, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) asked clubs to vote on a resolution that would give the SPFL the authority to end the Championship, League One and League Two seasons on a points-per-game basis (similar to the approach subsequently taken in France). The resolution would also give the SPFL the power to end the Premiership season on the same basis if the remaining matches could not be completed. Article 60 of the SPFL’s articles of association (Articles)[1] ensures that such resolution would require a minimum of 75% of Premiership clubs (nine in total), 75% of Championship clubs (eight in total) and 75% of League One and Two clubs combined (fifteen in total) to vote in favour of it. Immediately, numerous clubs publicly opposed the resolution: notably Rangers and Falkirk, who are chasing league titles, and Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer, all of whom are facing relegation. Whilst the articles state that the resolution would lapse if not passed by the requisite majority within 28 days, the SPFL requested that all responses were returned by 17:00 on 10 April.

On 10 April, shortly after the “deadline”, the SPFL released a statement confirming that it had received responses from 39 of the 42 clubs and that the threshold for passing the resolution had been met in relation to Premiership clubs and League One and Two clubs.[2] Subsequently, it became clear that Dundee was the only outstanding Championship club yet to vote and, in order for the resolution to pass, its vote needed to be in favour.

Over the Easter weekend, further confusion arose. Photographic evidence emerged that suggested Dundee had originally voted against the resolution. On the same day, Rangers released a statement calling for the suspension of the SPFL’s chief executive and its legal adviser whilst an independent investigation was conducted, citing evidence from an unnamed “whistleblower” which suggested a lack of “fair play”.[3] The following day, the Hearts chairman accused the SPFL of trying to “unduly influence” the ballot,[4] whilst the SPFL chairman demanded that Rangers either prove or withdraw its claims and clarified that Dundee’s “no” vote was received after a written request from the club that any attempted vote “should not be considered as cast”.[5] On 15 April, it was reported that Dundee had now voted in favour of the resolution and, as such, it had passed.

In the intervening weeks, the discussions surrounding re-formatting the number of teams in each division in Scotland broke down as a result of insufficient support amongst Premiership clubs (which means the 12-10-10-10 format is likely to continue into next season), whilst an SPFL-commissioned investigation in relation to the voting procedure found “no evidence of improper behaviour”.[6] More notably, under article 46 of the Articles,[7] Rangers, Hearts and Stranraer forced an extraordinary general meeting (EGM), in which a resolution was proposed for an independent investigation to be conducted – Rangers also subsequently offered to pay for such investigation. This resolution also required at least 75% of each of (i) the Premiership clubs, (ii) the Championship clubs and (iii) the League One and Two clubs combined to vote in favour of it.

On 7 May, Rangers circulated a dossier to the other 41 clubs in the SPFL in an attempt to gain support for its resolution. The dossier reportedly claimed, amongst other things, that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the SPFL chief executive may have breached his fiduciary duty as a director and that material information was not made available to member clubs to allow them to make a fully informed decision (including that the SPFL could be liable for refunds of up to £10 million from broadcasters and sponsors). In response, the SPFL rebutted several claims made in the dossier and urged clubs to reject Rangers’ resolution.

At the EGM on 12 May, Rangers did not receive the necessary support for its resolution, with only thirteen clubs voting in favour of it. The SPFL had previously warned that if certain clubs “continue on their current course, the cost to our game will be incalculable”,[8] but it seems likely that further litigation will ensue in the near future. To put it lightly, the relationship between Rangers and the SPFL appears strained, whilst many other clubs may also look to challenge what they perceive to be an injustice. Inverness, for instance, released a statement confirming that it would “testify to the bullying and threats made against our club”,[9] whilst Hearts has stated it will look to “formally challenge” the outcome if the Premiership is officially cancelled.[10]

In one respect, the SPFL’s decisive action towards the beginning of April and the desire to provide its clubs with some form of certainty is commendable. The manner in which the proposal was carried out, however, has left a lot to be desired and the “outcome” of it appears both mired in controversy and far from final. In this regard, the current situation in Scotland may serve as a warning to other nations looking to implement a similar strategy. Other European leagues which receive larger sums in the form of broadcasting revenues may also justifiably argue that it would have been imprudent for them to propose cancelling their seasons with such haste.

In recent weeks, it certainly appears that progress has been made in relation to restarting seasons; the German Bundesliga is due to resume on 16 May[11] and “Project Restart” has gained momentum in England. Whilst this approach seems favourable initially, it, too, is not without its controversies – in Germany, Dynamo Dresden’s entire squad has been put into isolation after two players tested positive,[12] whilst, in England, a third Brighton player tested positive last week.[13] Both clubs are facing the prospect of relegation and may argue that it is unfair for them to compete with significantly weakened squads and that the players’ health should be prioritised.

Although fairness and sporting integrity, the health of those involved and the financial impact of not carrying out contractual obligations (particularly those with broadcasters) will undoubtedly be at the forefront of governing bodies’ minds, there appears to be no panacea in terms of how European leagues should approach the end of this season. However, with UEFA asking the leagues to confirm whether their seasons will be completed or cancelled by 25 May,[14] something we can predict with certainty is that tough decisions are likely to be made over the coming weeks.