Development Health Legal and Parliamentary Affiars Sports

The dilemma of COVID-19 and Sports

By Lewis Maunze

This cartoon is the perfect caricature of what sports enthusiasts (specifically soccer fans) are going through during the continued lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is supposed to share a lighter moment in contrast to what the world is experiencing in reality.

The picture depicts the current situation in world sport. Firstly, sport is stagnant (as depicted by the soccer ball), sports fans and stakeholders are stressed and are desperately waiting for any sign of ‘life’ and what the regulatory authorities are doing about this state of limbo? (as depicted by the husband watching the motionless soccer ball). And lastly, those that do not care about the sport can only wonder why sports lovers are under so much distress and how long this will last? (as depicted by the wife enquiring in amazement from her husband).

I will thus unpack this current situation by answering the pertinent questions raised above as well as the complexities that have been brought by Covid-19 to other sectors such as sports administration, legally and public health.

Why sport is motionless?

It is common cause The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic. The COVID 19 virus has brought a halting stop to not only our daily activities but also sporting activities all across the globe. As of today, the infection rate is at 8,922,073 worldwide, the death rates worldwide is at 466,871. In Zimbabwe, the infection rates are at 479 and the deaths experienced are at 5. This has even made any form of gatherings illegal in terms of Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020 Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment, and Treatment)( National Lockdown) Order[1].

What regulatory authorities are doing?

On the 18th of March 2020 the world football governing body FIFA spearheaded by the Bureau[2] of the FIFA Council have been ‘on the ball’ in coming up with a regulation[3]. This FIFA Regulation is meant to curtail some of the footballing issues affecting players and clubs arising because the COVID-19 (Herein after referred to as the FIFA Regulations). The Bureau described this current situation as a typical case of force majeure. Force Majeure is a legal term which means a provision in a contract that excuses a party form performing its contractual obligations that becomes impossible and impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated such as pandemic like Covid-19. As postulated by the Bureau in the FIFA Regulations the budding core issues were as follows:

  1. Expiring agreements and new agreements,
  2. Agreements that cannot be performed as expected originally,
  3. Registration periods (“Transfer windows”),
  4. Other issues.

a) Expiring agreements and new agreements

The main issue was around the worry of players and their contracts that would expire during suspension of various leagues due to the Corona virus rendering them unemployed. This also affected parties to new agreements that would spill into the next season. In spite the permanent agreements this will also include loan transfers.

  • The Bureau proposed that existing agreements would extend beyond their original date of expiration (i.e agreements terminating at the end of the season). New agreements would thus commence at the beginning of the new season. This includes contracts that are already signed.

b) Agreements that cannot be performed as expected originally

In a scenario of a pandemic certainly contractual agreements cannot be fulfilled as anticipated by all stakeholders. And in essence have become an impossibility.

  • In its proposed guidelines FIFA is desirous to find a solution for all affected parties as well as protecting jobs. And as such football clubs and their employees were urged to collaborate in collective agreements in terms of remuneration and other benefits regarding employment conditions during the Covid-19 suspension.

c) “Transfer windows”

  • It has been tabled that Member Associations are permitted to amend season dates and or registration periods through notifying FIFA.
  • A professional has the right to be registered by an association outside the registration period regardless of the date of expiry and termination as a result of a contract that expired or was terminated as a result of Covid-19

Why sports lovers are under so much distress?

Certainly up to this point no one has had the prophetic powers to predict the trajectory and severity this pandemic will have. Scientists have predicted that there might be another deadly wave that might change the direction of the ‘curve’. See the Japan case[4]. At this juncture there a more questions than answers. Nations and scientists are faced with this for the first time since the Spanish flu, thus it is aptly coined the ‘novel corona virus’.

The layman just views sport as any other game but does not take into cognizance its impact financially as multi-billion dollar industry as well as socially when it comes to a grinding halt. The chief worry besides the player and club issues which FIFA has tried to resolve through its regulations are the following but are not limited to; when the leagues will resume? When will it be safe for leagues to resume? When can leagues be declared null and void? How the winners and clubs to be relegated will be declared? And I had to sneak in the most asked question amongst my sports loving circles, will Liverpool FC win the English Premier League[5]?

In a bid to give a wholesome answer, individual footballing associations or Member Associations (MA’s) like ZIFA are allowed to be autonomous and come up with bespoke solutions. It is common cause that not every country has been affected and reacted the same way to the Corona virus. As an example is the Eredivisie which has opted to cancel their league. As per regulation all these cancellations are guided and in consultation with FIFA.

In developed nations like the United Kingdom teams like Manchester United have taken the responsibility and cushioned their non-playing staff and will pay them 100% of their wages[6]. Other clubs have taken the option to furlough and take advantage of their stimulus packages. In a bid to assist their NHS and through cooperate social responsibility, we have seen football players in the EPL taking pay cuts[7] as well as philanthropists and the private sector assisting.

What this means for Zimbabwe

As a MA our Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) has had the benefit of not being in the direct forefront of the ripple effects of the suspension of leagues due to COVID-19. The Zimbabwean soccer season does not run from the 1st day of July to the 30th of June like the rest of the world. As such our potential worries are limited to when already signed contracts would commence, agreements that cannot be performed since the suspension has extended into our regular season. As well as the amendment of the transfer period and registration period. This will greatly reduce the threat of any disputes arising and any litigation.

We certainly cannot replicate some of the measures taken by developed countries to lobby for player pay cuts since our footballers earn paltry wages to begin with. Benevolence from the private sector and the cooperate world through CSR can be welcomed to intervention. In the same breath the nation has also been given a nod of confidence by Delta Beverages who are reported to stay committed to their agreement in backing the sponsorship of Zimbabwe’s top flight soccer league[8].

More and more European clubs are leaning towards resuming their domestic leagues in safer environments. As a nation this might seem as the most realistic option to play games behind closed doors although a daunting task logistically and financially. For example stadia will still have to be hired despite the fact that there will be no gate takings, players will need to be quarantined and tested frequently amongst many other challenges. This fortunately coincides with a time when FIFA has announced that it will distribute Covid-19 relief funds to every MA in the tune of USD500,000[9]. The PSL Chief Executive has reiterated that, ‘…This immediate financial assistance should be used to mitigate the financial impact of Covid-19 on football in MAs, namely to meet financial or operational obligations that may have towards staff and other third parties’[10]. This would assist in ensuring the safe resumption and less interference with our beautiful game.

Conclusion

Within this current crisis of the suspension of all sporting activities this has brought to prominence the world of e-sports[11]. And the exciting part is that there are zero chances of contracting any infection, you can be Lionel Messi overnight and my personal favourite is Zimbabwe can even win the World Cup.

At this point it will take a joint effort of every citizen to practice social distancing and wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds as well as use alcohol based sanitizers. All this will be done in a bid to meet the minimum standards set by WHO for us to lift lockdown.

Be safe, respect the laws of science and the authorities. God willing, till we next meet in a stadium or have an argument over a sporting decision in a sports bar.


[1] Section 5 on Prohibition of Gatherings

[2] Article 27 of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players states that on the case of force majeure shall be decided by the FIFA Council, whose decisions are final.

[3] FIFA COVID-19 Football Regulatory Issues Version 1.0 (April 2020)

[4] https://www.economist.com>asia

[5] https://www.express.co.uk/sport/football/1255240/liverpool-win-premier-league-season-cancelled-coronavirus

[6] https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/manchester-united-coronavirus-staff-payments-17950950

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/52181757

[8] Sunday Mail Newspaper dated 26th of April 2020

[9] https://www.fifa.com/who-we-are/news/fifa-starts-immediate-financial-support-to-member-associations-in-response-to-co

[10] Sunday Mail dated 26th April 2020

[11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2020/04/14/will-necessity-be-the-making-of-esports-during-covid-19/

Lewis Maunze is a legal practitioner who uses his vast legal experience to actualize his mission of helping people. His passion for society’s wellbeing and furthering the law covers various areas of jurisprudence, with a particularly keen interest in sports law. He can be reached at :[email protected] and Twitter @LewisMaunze

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende