UEFA eases stance on leagues that want to end season early

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              The UEFA logo displayed to the entrance of the UEFA Headquarters, in Nyon, Switzerland, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. The UEFA meet on 17 March 2020 to discuss the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the UEFA EURO 2020 and the European Cup competitions. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
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GENEVA (AP) — UEFA softened its tone Tuesday toward competition organizers who want to end seasons early before completing all games — with some governments set to take those decisions out of soccer’s hands.

UEFA’s declaration that “special cases” may not face any sanctions came just hours before the Dutch government extended a ban on large-scale events in the Netherlands until Sept. 1 — effectively ending the country’s top-level soccer season.

With no clear end in sight for European soccer’s shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic, Belgium had been the first top-tier league this month to say it wanted to declare its current standings final.

That prompted a quick response from UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who warned that countries risked losing Champions League and Europa League entries if they took premature decisions.

However, the announcement Tuesday by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte showed the limit of soccer officials’ authority.

The Dutch soccer federation published a statement saying it planned to end the 2019-20 season and would consult with UEFA.

The Eredivisie league said clubs would speak Friday “about the consequences of the decision.” When the league was halted, Ajax topped the standings ahead of AZ Alkmaar on goal difference, with both set to advance to the Champions League qualifying rounds.

Earlier Tuesday, UEFA had hosted talks with its 55 member federations and toned down its previous directive to “a strong recommendation“ to try to complete domestic seasons.

UEFA’s new stance is that “some special cases will be heard.”

“With this in mind, UEFA is currently developing some guidelines concerning participation in its club competitions, in order to assist its member associations in case of a canceled league or cup,” Europe’s soccer body said in a statement. An executive committee on Thursday can confirm those guidelines.

Belgian officials were set to resume talks Friday when UEFA’s position is clearer.

Domestic club competitions aim to play into July and August — likely in empty stadiums if restarting games is even possible.

UEFA hopes to complete the Champions League and Europa League later in August. Both competitions paused in March during the round of 16.

Options for UEFA could include a Champions League mini-tournament in a single venue. Aug. 29 is a target date for the final originally scheduled for May 30 in Istanbul.

UEFA postponed the 2020 European Championship by one year last month which cleared space for domestic leagues to try to complete the season and fulfil broadcasting contracts.

The playoffs to decide the final four teams to qualify for the 24-team Euros have already postponed twice, and UEFA vice president Sándor Csányi said Tuesday they could be delayed to October or November.

Csányi told Hungarian media those months are options. All 55 UEFA member countries currently have Nations League games scheduled during the October and November international dates.

Hungary was drawn to play at Bulgaria in the playoffs. The winner will host either Iceland or Romania with a place in the final tournament at stake.

Hungary is also one of the 12 Euro 2020 host nations now renewing contracts and logistics to stage their games one year later.

Playing the men’s tournament in June-July 2021, with seven games including the final in London, has taken the slot reserved for the women’s European Championship. That event in England is expected to be postponed to July 2022 on Thursday.