Belgium's Pro League, ready to shut down for season, faces off against UEFA

The move by the Pro League, Belgian soccer's professional league, to recommend the cancellation of the remainder of its 2019-20 season set off alarm bells at UEFA, Europe's governing body.

If other leagues and clubs follow suit, it would likely start a wave of cancellations that could not stop and would force UEFA to call off the remainder of the Champions League and Europa League seasons with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. (UEFA earns almost 90 percent of its revenues from TV rights sold across Europe and around the world.)

In Europe's leagues, an estimated $6 billion will be lost if the current seasons aren't completed.

UEFA responded with a veiled threat to the Belgian federation to kick teams from leagues that did not finish their seasons out of next season's Champions League and Europa League competitions. Participation in even in the Europa League means millions of dollars, big money for teams from smaller countries like Belgium.

"Since participation in UEFA club competitions is determined by the sporting result achieved at the end of a full domestic competition, a premature termination would cast doubts about the fulfillment of such condition," a letter signed by UEFA, the European Club Association and the European Leagues umbrella group said.

If the plan of the Pro League's board is ratified by the Pro League's general assembly on April 15, Club Brugge will be declared champion.

Belgian pro soccer is unusual in several ways:

1. It operates a regular season -- 30 games -- with 16 teams -- and a playoff system in which the top six teams play each other twice -- another 10 games -- to determine the champions. Teams carry half their points from the regular season over to the playoffs.

Club Brugge has a 15-point lead with one game to play in the regular season. It would have been the prohibitive favorite in the championship round though the Belgian playoffs have produced their share of upsets.

2. It operates a minimal promotion-and-relegation system. Only the last-place team in the 16-team Pro League goes down and the winner of the 8-team second division goes up to the Pro League.

The Pro League has formed a committee to examine how to determine Belgium's second Champions League entrant for next season -- assuming UEFA doesn't kick it out -- and promotion and relegation.

There is a tight Champions League race among Gent, Charleroi and Antwerp, separated by two points. The solution to the promotion and relegation might be to promote Roeselare and Lokeren, the top two teams currently in the final round of the playoff stage of the second tier, and make the Pro League a 20-team league next season, whenever that is.

Belgium clubs have already been paid all the moneys due from their 2019-20 media rights deal -- an estimated $90 million -- so they can get probably get by without finishing the current season.

It's the future that's the problem.

Pro League clubs derive half their revenues from player transfers -- Belgium ranked ninth in the world with $287 million in transfer fees in 2019 -- and many are in danger of folding because of the expected crash of the international transfer market.

For the time being, Belgian soccer officials aren't concerned about UEFA's threat after a video-conference with European soccer leaders on Friday. Belgian soccer federation president Mehdi Bayat, a Charleroi executive, said the priority was to deal with the pandemic that has hit Belgium hard.

"We are working hand in hand with the Belgian government," he said. "We aren't experts. Our priority is to everyone, to win the battle against the coronavirus so we can return to a life that is more or less normal. The only thing we can do is support government policies the best we can."
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