European Soccer Preview: Six Questions to Start the New Season

An hour or so after the fireworks had finished, long after the smoke had cleared and the lights had dimmed, a handful of Bayern Munich players returned to the field at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. In near darkness, Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba sat down on the turf. At last, the strangest season was over. Now was the time to rest and to reflect.

Or it should have been, at any rate. Yet even before Bayern collected the Champions League trophy, the new season was already underway. A peppering of domestic leagues had started across Europe. The early rounds of the next Champions League and Europa League were already being played. Other teams had long since returned to preseason training.

This feels like the weekend that the 2020-21 season starts: the opening of the new Premier League and La Liga campaigns, with Serie A and the Bundesliga scheduled to return in a few days’ time. The reality, though, is different: Soccer never really went away.

This is still, though, a watershed moment. The restarts of the continent’s major competitions in May and June felt, at the time, somehow novel, isolated events, make-do exceptions on the road back to normality.

Now, though, players and fans alike can see that this is how it is going to be for the foreseeable future: stadiums empty or open at only a fraction of their capacities, plans interrupted by the coronavirus, the ever-present sense that another shutdown could be on the horizon. For Gnabry, Kimmich and Alaba, and for everyone else, the strangest season may just be starting.

The problem, the clubs of the Premier League quickly realized this spring, was that there was no rule for this. The competition’s handbook stretches to hundreds of pages, but as executives pored over it and a dozen or so appendices in March and April, they saw that not one of them addressed what happened if a season could not be finished.

Six months later, they admit that the “rule book did not adequately deal with the situation,” as the league’s chief executive, Richard Masters, put it this week. In a meeting of all 20 teams last week, the hope was that an agreement could be reached that would — in his words — “add more certainty.”

It did not quite work like that. England’s clubs agreed that “finishing the season is the No. 1 priority.” Playing games behind closed doors is “now enshrined as one of the things you would have to go through before you reached curtailment.” But beyond that, there is no plan for what will happen if coronavirus cases spike again and the league cannot continue. “The issue of a cutoff point, or a number of matches to be played for a season to be valid, was not agreed,” Masters said. The same is true in Spain, where La Liga has no blueprint for a worst-case scenario.

As Europe grapples with the virus’s lingering presence and localized lockdowns and international quarantines become more commonplace, then, the soccer season opens with a backdrop of uncertainty. Games are already underway in France and Scotland. England and Spain start this weekend. Germany’s season begins next Friday and Italy’s a day after that. After six months of conversations, what happens if they cannot finish their schedules is anyone’s guess.

Europe managed to finish last season thanks, in no small part, to the willingness of the players who comprise the competition to put their lives on hold for a few weeks. Premier League players, for example, were told that they would be under as much scrutiny as special forces troops to ensure plans for the restart were not thrown into doubt by a virus outbreak.

The game’s authorities accept that while such an approach could work for six weeks, it is not particularly realistic over the nine-month span of a full season. Indeed, in the short break between campaigns, a raft of players have contracted coronavirus. Paris St.-Germain alone has reported seven cases, including Neymar and Kylian Mbappé.

In March, of course, it was confirmation that Callum Hudson-Odoi, the Chelsea forward, and Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal coach, had contracted the virus that essentially forced the Premier League to shut down. That is no longer the automatic response; in France, the authorities have said that teams with four or more players who return positive tests will see their games postponed.

That does not mean, though, that the course of the season will not be influenced by the virus. Teams that register significant outbreaks will face daunting schedules to try to make up lost ground, and individual players who test positive will lose at least two weeks of training during their period of isolation, and then require time to be brought back to full speed, affecting their coaches’ plans and their teams’ hopes.

Some already are: in France, a number of stadiums have permitted a small percentage of fans to return over the course of the first two games of the season. Others are hopeful: RB Leipzig has received permission to host 8,500 fans at its opening game in the Bundesliga next weekend.

UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, had hoped to show its member associations the way by staging the European Super Cup — between Bayern Munich and Sevilla in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 24 — in front of around 13,000 fans, though that has since been complicated by Hungary’s decision to close its borders.

Progress elsewhere is slow. Spain does not expect fans to return in numbers until a coronavirus vaccine is available, and England’s plans for test events with 2,500 fans in attendance — ahead of a possible broader return to stadiums in October — have been altered or canceled because of a rise in case numbers in recent weeks.

At this point, certainly, the idea that stadiums will be even vaguely recognizable before the latter part of the season — at the absolute earliest — seems remote. Much of the season will be held either entirely, or largely, without fans in attendance, leaving clubs across Europe facing a massive shortfall in revenue.

With difficulty. During the long, tense negotiations over how to restart the season, the UEFA president, Aleksander Ceferin, was struck by how smoothly soccer’s various squabbling factions came together in extremis. The good of the game, he said, was paramount; red lines that had been sources of tension for years suddenly faded away.

A quick glimpse at the fixture calendar for the next nine months is enough to suggest that self-interest did not lay dormant for long. UEFA has made sure to find space for its Nations League project, as well as playing all six Champions League group stage games in the space of eight weeks before Christmas.

More impressively, various national associations have managed to squeeze in a couple of friendlies — England against New Zealand, anyone? — too. Only minor concessions to things like exhaustion or burnout have materialized: The Bundesliga will have a two-week winter break, rather than the traditional month, and England’s Football Association has abandoned replays in the F.A. Cup.

This season, then, is likely to be the survival of the fittest. The winter, in particular, will be arduous and endless in equal measure. The teams that have the physical conditioning — and, more significantly, can afford the depth of resources — to cope with its demands are likely to be those that emerge on top.

That should reduce the (already minimal) likelihood of surprise contenders challenging the established elite in domestic leagues; it may also give Bayern Munich a better-than-average shot of retaining the Champions League: suddenly, Germany’s 34-game league campaign has the look of a distinct advantage. It may also mean that the continent’s stars will be gasping for air by the time they arrive at the European Championships next summer, after 13 months of almost constant soccer.

While the compressed schedule and the lingering threat of the coronavirus are the season’s overarching themes, there is no shortage of subplots.

Italy has the look of the most intriguing title race: a Juventus team coached by a novice, Andrea Pirlo, but boasting the timeworn talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and, likely, Luis Suárez going for a 10th Scudetto in a row, with the Internazionale of Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, the summer’s best signing, standing in the way.

It is a similar plotline in Scotland, where Celtic stands on the brink of a 10th consecutive championship, too, something that is all but unthinkable to Rangers, its nemesis. Bayern Munich is on eight straight in Germany (there is a theme here, and it is not one that bodes well for European soccer as a whole) and Borussia Dortmund will need Erling Haaland to maintain the ruthlessness that marked his first few months in the Bundesliga to stop that becoming nine.

The French season, already underway, is more intriguing. Thomas Tuchel’s P.S.G. lost its opener to Lens on Thursday night, giving heart to its two likeliest contenders, Marseille and Lyon, the latter fresh from its run to the Champions League semifinals and yet to be plucked bare by the continent’s predators.

The Premier League looks more evenly poised than in some time. Manchester City has a title to regain from Liverpool, and Pep Guardiola, its coach, has a point to prove. And as Liverpool must find some other sense of purpose after ending its 30-year wait for a domestic title, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham all ended the season on an upward curve.

Everton has added stardust, in the form of James Rodríguez, and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United adds intrigue, but it is Chelsea that is most transformed. Frank Lampard, its rookie coach, was tasked with bringing through a new generation last year. This time, after spending $250 million on the likes of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, expectations, internal and external, will be far weightier.

And then, of course, there is the story that dominated the late summer, and the one that could yet prove to be the most defining of this curious, compact season.

Deceived and dejected, Lionel Messi returned to the Barcelona fold in the first week of September. It was a strange kind of triumph for the club: its crown jewel, a player who towers over its history, confessing that he had wanted to leave for a year, shredding the reputations of its administrators, expressing how little he believed in its approach, admitting that he has only stayed because he could not leave.

He has vowed that the circumstances will not see him simply go through the motions in the final year of his contract; he is too driven, too competitive for that. There is a temptation to believe that it sets up a Last Dance scenario, with Messi reviving Barcelona one more time before heading into the sunset in Manchester or Paris.

For that to happen, though, Messi would have to be proved wrong: Barcelona would have to demonstrate that it does have some idea of how it wants to return to the summit, some plan in place, some grand vision of what the future looks like. For all that Ronald Koeman, its new coach, is self-confident enough to impose himself at Camp Nou, it feels a distant prospect.

More likely is a far sadder denouement than anyone could have expected, even a year ago, one far bleaker than Messi deserves, but somehow fitting for the world we find ourselves in: a season played out in front of empty stands, the greatest of all time watching the ticking of the clock, the games coming so thick and fast that nobody has chance to catch their breath, the virus such a threat that nobody — not even him — has chance to say goodbye.