The future of soccer could be fewer games and fewer top competitions to help avoid a financial crisis, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a newspaper interview published Monday.
With soccer around the world in near-total shutdown and no end in sight because of the coronavirus pandemic, Infantino said the sport risked going into recession.
"Maybe we can reform world football by taking a step back," Infantino said in the interview with Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport published on his 50th birthday.
"There needs to be an evaluation of the global impact," the FIFA president said. "Let's all together save soccer from a crisis that risks becoming irreversible."
Infantino said different formats could be an answer, with "fewer, but more interesting tournaments. Maybe fewer squads, but more balance. Fewer, but more competitive, matches to safeguard the health of the players."
Before the pandemic, Infantino added to the congested soccer calendar by expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams for the 2026 edition, and by trying to launch a 24-team Club World Cup next year.
The inaugural edition of the latter tournament in China was delayed last week after UEFA and South American soccer body CONMEBOL postponed their championships by one year to 2021. That was to give domestic leagues time to try to finish their seasons.
The shutdown means there are already too few dates in the FIFA-managed calendar to complete the scheduled qualification paths for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The pressure now on soccer stakeholders — many with conflicting interests — is likely to force a debate on the squeezed schedule that the pandemic has exposed.
Some influential clubs in Europe are pushing to get more guaranteed games in a bigger Champions League, and 20-team top leagues could be under pressure to make cuts. Those include leagues in England, Spain and Italy.
"It's not science fiction. Let's discuss it," Infantino said about the possibility of changing soccer calendars.
FIFA announced last month a task force of officials from member federations, clubs, leagues and player unions that would look at drafting a new match calendar from 2024. That work could also now include the next four years to adjust to the current shutdown.
Former Olympic swimming champion Cameron van der Burgh said he has contracted the coronavirus and added his voice to concerns for athletes' well-being if the Tokyo Games go ahead as scheduled.
Van der Burgh, who retired from competitive swimming in 2018, posted a series of messages on social media on Sunday describing how he had been ill with the virus for two weeks.
"Although the most severe symptoms (extreme fever) have eased, I am still struggling with serious fatigue and a residual cough that I can't shake," van der Burgh wrote on his official Twitter account. "Any physical activity like walking leaves me exhausted for hours."
Van der Burgh wrote that athletes are "exposing themselves to unnecessary risk" by continuing to train in preparation for the Olympics because there is "no clarification" on whether the games will go ahead as planned.
"And those (athletes) that do contract (the virus) will try rush back to training most likely enhancing/extending the damage/recovery time," he wrote.
He ended his thread with: "COVID-19 is no joke!"
There are now signs that the Olympics, which are due to start on July 24, will be postponed. The International Olympic Committee announced Sunday it was considering a postponement amid growing pressure from athletes and some countries who want the world's biggest sporting event delayed or they won't send teams. The Japanese government has also accepted the possibility of a postponement.
But the IOC will only make a final decision within four weeks, it said, and that means athletes may still feel forced to train for the next month as they are not yet certain the Olympics will be pushed back.
The 31-year-old van der Burgh won gold at the 2012 London Olympics and silver at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in the 100-meter breaststroke. He also won six world championship golds, both long and short course. He holds the short course world records in the 50-meter and 100-meter breaststroke.
Van der Burgh is from South Africa but moved to London to work in the finance industry after retiring from swimming.
Most people only experience mild symptoms from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus and recover within weeks. But it is highly contagious and causes severe illness in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. People can carry and spread the virus without showing any symptoms.
More than 331,000 people have been infected worldwide, and more than 14,400 have died. Nearly 100,000 people have recovered.
As infections soared in Europe and the United States and the world economy spiraled downward, Japan on Monday hinted at the next possible victim of the globe-spanning coronavirus: The 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged that a postponement of the crown jewel of the sporting world could be unavoidable. Canada and Australia then added to the immense pressure that has been steadily mounting on organizers by suggesting that they wouldn't send athletes to Tokyo this summer.
"If it is difficult to hold in a complete way, a decision of postponement would be unavoidable," Abe said.
The massive headache of changing the logistics of an event that has taken years to prepare for — not to mention the huge cost involved and the blow to national pride — would simply be the latest example of something once unthinkable becoming reality as the fabric of human life continues to unravel before the virus' march.
The accumulation of canceled events, lost or altered work and a general, widespread shrinking in spending and interaction has economies worldwide suffering. In the United States, politicians were negotiating an enormous rescue package that could be worth nearly $2 trillion.
A surge in infections has caused a critical shortage of medical supplies in many places. Spain erected a field hospital in a convention center. British health workers pleaded for more gear, saying they felt like "cannon fodder." And President Donald Trump ordered mobile hospital centers be sent to Washington, California and New York.
As the shadow of the virus widens, there has also been a who's who of politicians and celebrities announcing they'd tested positive or were taking quarantine precautions.
Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky became the first U.S. senator to announce he was infected. Opera superstar Plácido Domingo announced he has COVID-19, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel put herself into quarantine after a doctor who gave her a vaccine tested positive.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever or coughing. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Italy's infections continued to spike Sunday, hitting 59,000 cases and 5,476 deaths, and India's prime minister asked, with mixed results, his nation of 1.3 billion people to stay home.
In Australia, a ban began Monday on bars, gyms, cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants and a host of other places where large groups of people gather.
Japan has apparently dodged, so far, the unchecked spread of the virus that some had earlier foreseen. But for many here, the fate of the 2020 Olympics has been a daily worry.
Many in power have been insisting that the virus would not change the games that are set to begin July 24 in Tokyo.
But there were major cracks in that narrative Monday.
The International Olympic Committee's announced a plan to examine the situation over the next few weeks and make a decision that could include the option to postpone.
Australia issued a statement saying it was advising its athletes to prepare for an Olympics in 2021. The Australian committee's executive board agreed unanimously that "an Australian Team could not be assembled in the changing circumstances at home and abroad."
Abe ruled out the possibility of a cancellation and said Monday that he hoped the IOC will make a decision early if the games are postponed, because the process would involve a lot of work and officials would need to start making changes as soon as possible.
The Olympic torch arrived in northern Japan last Friday ahead of the March 26 start of the torch relay, though officials are looking to keep crowds low.
As of Sunday, Japan had 1,719 confirmed cases of the virus, including 712 from a cruise ship, with 43 deaths.
Japan has so far managed to slow the acceleration of the outbreak, but experts say they have found a growing number of clusters in urban areas with untraceable origins.
While other countries struggled to contain the virus, the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus outbreak emerged last year, said Monday that it is now allowing for limited movement, both within the city and out of it, as its months-long lockdown gradually eases.
Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, has 67,800 cases, the bulk of China's 81,093 total. The first infections were reported there, and Wuhan was also the first city to be locked down.
There was less promising news in business circles.
Singapore Airlines said it will cut 96% of its capacity until the end of April as international travel continues to be hit by tightening of border controls to battle Covid-19.
South Korea's low-cost airline Eastar Jet said Monday it was temporarily shutting down its all domestic flights, days after it halted its last remaining international flights.
In New York, everything from play dates to picnics in the park and pickup games of basketball were shut down as officials set up dramatic restrictions to slow the virus. There are worries the state could become one of the world's biggest coronavirus hot spots.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all nonessential businesses in the state to close and nonessential workers to stay home starting Sunday night, tightening previous restrictions.
New York City hospitals are just 10 days from running out of "really basic supplies," Mayor Bill de Blasio said late Sunday.
"If we don't get the equipment, we're literally going to lose lives," de Blasio told CNN.
Health care workers also warned of the worsening shortages, saying they were being asked to reuse and ration disposable masks and gloves.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, promised on CBS' "Face The Nation" that medical supplies are about to start pouring in and will be "clearly directed to those hot spots that need it most."
But efforts for a quick aid package from Congress faltered. The U.S. Senate voted against advancing a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package. Democrats argued it was tilted toward corporations rather than workers and health care providers. But negotiations continued.
The delay shook investors, as futures for U.S. stocks fell sharply at the start of trading Sunday. Futures for the S&P 500 fell by 5%, triggering a halt in trading shortly after opening. Wall Street is coming off its worst week since 2008, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 17%.
Worldwide, more than 335,000 people have been infected and more than 14,600 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
There were more than 33,000 cases across the U.S. and more than 400 deaths.
Worldwide, some 97,800 people have recovered, mostly in China.
The Australian Olympic Committee is advising its athletes to prepare for an Olympics in 2021.
Ian Chesterman, Australia's team leader for Tokyo, on Monday said "It's clear the games can't be held in July" because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our athletes have been magnificent in their positive attitude to training and preparing, but the stress and uncertainty has been extremely challenging for them," Chesterman said in a statement. "They have also shouldered the burden of concern for their peers around the world. That has been a consistent message to me."
AOC chief executive Matt Carroll said Australia had athletes based overseas and training in central locations around the country and "with travel and other restrictions this becomes an untenable situation,."
The Australian committee's executive board agreed unanimously in an emergency teleconference Monday that "an Australian team could not be assembled in the changing circumstances at home and abroad" and decided to notify athletes as soon as possible.
The Canadian Olympic Committee had earlier said it won't send athletes to the Tokyo Games unless they're postponed for a year.
The International Olympic Committee on Sunday confirmed for the first time it was considering a postponement, a decision which could take weeks to reach. The Tokyo Games are scheduled to start July 24.
Until late last week the Australian committee was supporting the IOC's plans to go ahead as scheduled with the games, but there's been considerable backlash since then from athletes and some sports and more severe travel restrictions imposed by Australian federal and state governments.
"Moving the world's biggest sporting event, which involves so many sports, athletes, the world's media, sponsors and the rest ... is not easy to do," Carroll said. "Last Thursday was a different set of circumstances to standing here today. There has been dramatic change in our own country and across the world.
The Tokyo Olympics are going to happen — but almost surely in 2021 rather than in four months as planned.
This became clear after the IOC on Sunday announced it was considering a postponement. Major Olympic nations like Canada and Australia have added pressure by saying they will not go if the games are staged this year.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach sent a letter to athletes explaining the decision and why it might take so long, while also acknowledging the extended timeline might not be popular.
"I know that this unprecedented situation leaves many of your questions open," he wrote. "I also know that this rational approach may not be in line with the emotions many of you have to go through."
The IOC's move seemed inevitable for a week with pressure mounting from all quarters — athletes, sponsors, broadcasters and more than 200 national Olympic committees, and international sports federations.
Shortly after Bach's statement, the Canadian Olympic Committee said it won't send teams to the Olympics unless the games are postponed by a year. Australia issued a statement saying it was advising its athletes to prepare for an Olympics in 2021.
The Australian committee's executive board agreed unanimously that "an Australian Team could not be assembled in the changing circumstances at home and abroad."
World Athletics President Seb Coe sent a letter to Bach saying that holding the Olympics in July "is neither feasible nor desirable." He outlined a number of reasons, including competitive fairness, the likelihood athletes would overtrain if given a compressed schedule and the uncertainty caused by orders in many countries barring people from gyms and other workout venues.
National Olympic committees in Brazil and Slovenia had also called for postponement until 2021. Norway's Olympic body said it did not want athletes going to Tokyo until the global health crisis is under control.
The United States governing bodies of swimming and track — two of the three top-tier Summer Games sports — had called on their national Olympic officials to push for a postponement.
Japan's politicians fell in line quickly on Monday as they awakened to Bach's move.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking at a parliamentary session, said a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics would be unavoidable if the games cannot be held in a complete way because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"If it is difficult to hold (the Games) in a complete way, a decision of postponement would be unavoidable," he said.
Abe said he hoped the IOC would make a decision early if it is postponed, because the process would involve a lot of work and should start as soon as possible.
Tokyo Governor Yurko Koike echoed Abe.
"The IOC will fully examine what to do over the next four weeks, and in that process that word (postponement) may be included," she said.
The IOC holds most of the cards in any rescheduling, spelled out in a Host City Contract signed in 2013 between the IOC, the Japanese Olympic Committee and the city of Tokyo.
Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics, but a national audit put the figure at more than twice that much. The bill is sure to increase with any postponement, and the vast majority of the spending if from the public treasury.
The IOC has a reserve fund of about $2 billion to tide itself over, and also has insurance against postponement or cancellation.
"The public is expecting and supports postponement, so it won't be a big deal," Jeff Kingston, who studies Japanese politics at Temple University in Tokyo, said in an email to Associated Press. "People are way more worried about the economic consequences and their jobs and if the number of cases ramps."
Former IOC marketing director Michael Payne said the delay might work to the advantage of the IOC and Japan.
"What better platform is there going to be than the Olympic Games when the world has pulled through the virus," Payne told AP in an interview Sunday, just before the IOC announcement. "You've got a dynamic that will be even more powerful for Japan and the rest of the world. But you are going to have a tough road getting there."
The Olympic torch arrived Friday in northern Japan. The torch relay it set to begin on Thursday from that area but is in doubt. On Sunday, thousands crowed one northern city to view the flame. Organizers have asked spectators to show restraint, threatening to delay the relay or change plans.
As of Sunday, Japan had 1,719 confirmed cases of the virus, including 712 from a cruise ship, with 43 deaths.
While Japan has so far managed to slow the acceleration of the outbreak, experts say they have found a growing number of clusters in urban areas with untraceable infections.