Champions League, Premier League swept aside as coronavirus ravages sport

Paris (AFP) –


The collapse of sports events worldwide over the rapidly spreading new coronavirus gathered pace Friday with the English Premier League and European football's showpiece Champions League swept aside by the pandemic.

England's cricket tour of Sri Lanka also fell victim to the virus while suspension of the Premier League until April 4 came shortly after the French Football League announced that all Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 games would be on hold until further notice.

Formula One's Australian Grand Prix and The Players Championship, one of golf's most prestigious events, were among other events scrapped as the virus laid waste to the sporting calendar, with the future of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looking increasingly in doubt.

The impact of COVID-19, which has killed 5,043 people according to an AFP tally, is accelerating just over four months from the Tokyo Olympics' start on July 24.

Football's Premier League, with a worldwide audience of billions, was put on hold after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi were confirmed to have the disease.

"Following a meeting of shareholders today, it was unanimously decided to suspend the Premier League with the intention of returning on 4 April, subject to medical advice and conditions at the time," the Premier League said in a statement.

The decision by authorities in England and France to suspended top-flight football means that all Europe's top leagues have ground to a halt apart from Germany where matches have been ordered to be played behind closed doors. Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A have already suspended matches.

European football's governing body UEFA took a similar step in announcing that all UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches scheduled to be played next week had been postponed.

The move comes after two of next week's four scheduled Champions League last 16, second legs -- between Manchester City and Real Madrid, and between Juventus and Lyon -- had already been called off.

"In the light of developments due to the spread of COVID-19 in Europe and related decisions made by different governments, all UEFA club competitions matches scheduled next week are postponed," UEFA said in a statement.

Sports across the globe have suffered major disruption because of the virus with the PGA Tour golf season, the men's tennis tour, NBA basketball, Major League Baseball and a host of top-flight events interrupted.

- Latest victims -

England's cricketers will be returning from Sri Lanka among the latest victims of the sporting chaos.

Their tour of Sri Lanka was scrapped on Friday as the team took part in a practice match ahead of the first of two Test matches due to start on March 19.

"At this time, the physical and mental wellbeing of our players and support teams is paramount," said an England and Wales Cricket Board statement announcing the end of the tour.

More bad news could come as European football chiefs are to meet next week to consider whether to postpone Euro 2020, due to start in June and this year's other major international sports along with the Olympics.

Tokyo Olympics organisers, Japan's government and the International Olympic Committee have been adamant the Games will go ahead as planned despite the global panic.

But US President Donald Trump became the first foreign leader to break ranks and raise the prospect of delaying the Olympics until 2021.

"Maybe they postpone it for a year," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, 19 weeks before the opening ceremony in Tokyo's Olympic Stadium.

"You know, I like that better than I like having empty stadiums all over the place. I think if you cancel it, make it a year later, that's a better alternative than doing it with no crowd," he said.

Trump's comments came just hours after actresses dressed as ancient Greek priestesses held the ceremonial flame-lighting at a ruined temple in the original Olympia, Greece.

However, Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said: "Neither the IOC nor the organising committee is thinking about delaying or cancelling the Games at all."

Asked about the possibility of scaling back the number of spectators, Hashimoto said: "We are not thinking about that at all."

In Melbourne, drivers were just hours from the first practice session when the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was axed on Friday, after a McLaren team member was diagnosed with COVID-19.

The last-minute cancellation raises fears for other races including next week's Bahrain Grand Prix, which has already barred fans.

The Chinese Grand Prix has been postponed, while the inaugural Formula One race in Vietnam on April 5 is also at risk.