Chile's Copa Libertadores controversy an example of fixture chaos
With so many football championships around the globe now halted indefinitely because of the outbreak of the coronavirus, there is a question left hanging: What to do with the rest of the season?
Given that the pause may last for several months, it is not clear how all the remaining fixtures could be accommodated -- which is what happened to last year's Chilean Championship.
The motive for the hold up in Chile had nothing to do with pandemics, and everything to do with a wave a social unrest that made it impossible for football to continue as normal. The country has had a sad recent history of football violence, but clashes with the security forces had the effect of uniting groups of fans of rival clubs -- and their consensus was that football could not go ahead while people were dying in the streets.
Of the total of 30 rounds, 24 had been played when unrest sparked. After a five week pause, there was an attempt to resume -- swiftly halted when fans made it clear that this would only lead to further protest. And so, having to fit into the calendar of South American football, drastic decisions had to be made. The season was declared over, and the title awarded to the league leaders Universidad Catolica. This part was hardly controversial. Like Liverpool in this season's Premier League, Catolica were all but uncatchable, 13 points ahead of their nearest rivals. In other countries -- Spain and Italy, for example -- it would be more problematic to award the trophy to the current narrow leaders.
There was no relegation from the Chilean first division. But the top two from the second division were still promoted. This was easier in Chile than it would be in Europe because of the size of the first division, which included only 16 teams, now increased to 18. Such a move in Europe may lead to fixture pileups.
There may have been an extra incentive for the Chileans not to relegate the last two clubs. Second from bottom when the music stopped where the giant Universidad de Chile, the team with the highest average attendances over the course of the campaign.
Indeed, the perception that Universidad de Chile -- or La U -- were being protected was by far the biggest cause of conflict in the decision to suspend the season. How would places in the continental competitions be awarded?
The problem here was the country's fourth slot in the Copa Libertadores. It would have gone to the winner of the domestic cup, but that competition had not been completed. Two of the semifinalists, Colo Colo and Universidad Catolica, had already made sure of a place in the Libertadores through their league form. The authorities decided, then, that the slot would go to the winners of a playoff of the other two semifinalists, La U and Union Espanola.
They were to have met in January to decide matters. But, furious, Espanola declined to take part. In their view, Universidad were being unduly favoured and the criteria should have been based on league form, which, of course, would have sent Union Espanola through.
Universidad were then awarded the spot by walk over -- and have already been eliminated from the 2020 Libertadores. But the matter is probably not over. Union Espanola have taken their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport -- an institution that could well find itself overloaded with similar legal challenges if Europe follows the Chilean example and declares the season to be over.