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Premier League players fearing rush to restart will risk health

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FIFA Medical Commission Chairman Michel D'Hooghe. Photo: Kurt Desplenter/AFP via Getty Images

FIFA Medical Commission Chairman Michel D'Hooghe. Photo: Kurt Desplenter/AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

FIFA Medical Commission Chairman Michel D'Hooghe. Photo: Kurt Desplenter/AFP via Getty Images

Leading Premier League executives fear the competition could be rushed back under pressure from the government as politicians seek to lift morale amid mounting tension over lockdown measures.

British ministers have been in talks with the Premier League about returning "as soon as possible" but clubs are concerned that government officials will use the resumption of top-flight football as a tool to deflect criticism, especially while major doubts persist over the logistics and safety of again playing matches.

It is understood that many Premier League players are fearful of the health risks of games going ahead behind closed doors and, with the league saying it will base decisions on government advice, there is concern that they could be pushed into a disastrous early return before it is completely safe.

In other developments, the chair of FIFA's medical committee warned against restarting football and said that it could take only one positive player test to derail the Premier League's entire "Project Restart" plan.

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The Premier League was also warned that supporters would inevitably gather in groups, even secretly, to watch matches that were played behind closed doors.

With the Premier League still working towards a June restart, some clubs began planning to resume group training as early as May 11.

Debate gathered over whether relegation should be scrapped even if the remaining games were played because "sporting integrity" had already been lost.

The Premier League's 20 clubs will meet again on Friday, with the league still remaining hopeful of potentially restarting the campaign on June 8 and finishing at the end of July.

It is understood that Premier League planning would involve a limited number of venues and facilitating players and certain staff being tested for coronavirus around twice a week, while the remaining 92 matches were played.

There are concerns, however, over the availability of testing - especially if there is any shortage among key workers - as well as the reliability of the tests and how long they could take to process.

Some clubs would also be unhappy at the prospect of being unable to use their own stadiums.

The chair of FIFA's medical committee Dr Michel D'Hooghe yesterday that all European leagues should now be focused on preparing for next season and expressed concern that economic considerations could override those of health. He also warned that plans to resume football could quickly unravel.

"Imagine that they do the testing of a player after having played two or three matches and one player is positive," said D'Hooghe.

"Then they can put the whole team in quarantine, so it is certainly over with the championship. For me, common sense, inspired by my medical knowledge, is to stop the actual competition.

"I think that this is a very dangerous situation. It is a fight between health and economic values. I think you should stop this season.

"Try to find a sporting solution, respecting the positions and respecting the rules of the national authorities. I think the best thing that we can do is to start to try to prepare for the next season."

As well as his current work on Fifa's council and medical committee, D'Hooghe was previously president of the Belgian Football Federation and Club Brugge.

"I have been confronted many times with discussions between the economic interests and the health," he said. "Nearly every time, economics won against medicine but if there is one situation, one moment, when medicine and health should win against the economy, it is certainly now.

"Can we play a football match where we ask players to remain 1.5 metres from each other? Even if you play with closed doors, you will always have groups of fans coming together, even in secret places, to have a common feeling of the sporting event."

Dr John Ashton, a former regional director of Public Health, said that it was "crackers" for football to be preparing its return when issues around coronavirus testing in England were unresolved.

Ashton had publicly condemned the decision to allow Liverpool to play Atletico Madrid in a Champions League match in front of a 52,000 capacity crowd at Anfield on March 11, just days before the full lockdown had started but at a time when there was already a significant spread of coronavirus in both England and Spain. Asked about the possibility of football resuming in June, Ashton said: "I think it's really silly. I don't think anything can get back to normal until after summer.

"It comes back to testing and they still haven't cracked the testing. This virus can also evolve and change. It would be much better for clubs to carry on with developing their community work."

Early

Clubs, though, are working towards an early return to some form of group training on May 11.

The Premier League is likely to send delegates to carry out risk assessments at training grounds before the resumption of any group training.

Bundesliga clubs have started to return to restricted group training and some managers are debating with their clubs whether to argue that there should be no relegation because the sporting integrity has already been lost.

It would mean that the title, European places and promotion would still be played for ahead of an expanded league season next term.

Those internal Bundesliga discussions have been passed on to at least three Premier League clubs, who are now watching to see how the situation develops. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent