London (AFP) – The English Premier League looks set to suspend their season when they hold emergency talks over the new coronavirus pandemic later on Friday but jump racing’s showpiece, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, will go ahead with 70,000 spectators expected to attend.
Tens of thousands are also expected in Cardiff this weekend for Saturday’s Six Nations match between Wales and Scotland, even although the other two games were postponed.
The Premier League was thrown into chaos late on Thursday as Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi both contracted the new coronavirus, leaving at least one game postponed and other fixtures in doubt.
Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers — who has three players in self-isolation — has called for the season to be suspended on “health and ethical” grounds.
Chelsea and runaway leaders Liverpool — who are due to meet Merseyside rivals Everton on Monday — subsequently cancelled their pre-match press conferences.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said the government was “considering the question of banning major public events such as sporting fixtures”, but was not ready to do so yet.
The EPL had originally stuck to the expert advice which had led the Prime Minister to hold fire, but once Arteta revealed he had the virus they announced they would be holding a meeting.
The English Football League (EFL) — responsible for the three tiers below the Premier League — said they would be pushing ahead with this weekend’s fixtures.
However, the EFL are thought likely to follow the lead of the Premier League should the latter, like many of their continental counterparts, suspend their league programme.
UEFA, European football’s governing body, will consider whether to postpone the ongoing Champions League and Euro 2020 at a meeting next week.
Rodgers made no bones about what he thought should happen when he spoke to the press on Thursday even before Arteta’s and Hudson-Odoi’s positive tests became public.
“Players could be going into games unsure of their team-mates or the opposition, whether they are clear or infected with the virus,” he said.
“The people responsible are now acting on it and they are having to react to whatever is thrown up, but ultimately there should be no risk taken in the public’s health. That’s key.”
– ‘Shaking hands all week’ –
As football debates the future of the season, there has been general astonishment that racing’s showpiece meeting, The Cheltenham Festival, has gone ahead in a traditional clash of the best of English and Irish thoroughbred jumpers.
Tens of thousands of Irish racegoers make what is to them an annual pilgrimage to south-west England for the four-day meeting which reaches its climax later on Friday with the ‘blue riband’ race of the sport, The Gold Cup.
Whilst crowds have been down this year, each day has still attracted between 50,000 and 60,000 people and around 70,000 are expected to attend Friday’s meeting.
There has been an outpouring of concern from Irish social media users about the danger posed by those returning from the Festival.
Irish racing, in contrast, announced on Thursday that all race meetings would be held behind closed doors until March 29.
There must be doubts, too, over whether probably the most famous steeplechase in the world, the Grand National, will go ahead on April 4 or at least take place behind closed doors.
Ian Renton, Cheltenham racecourse’s managing director, said they were following the British Government’s advice.
“I think to allow upwards of 60,000 people to enjoy a sport they love and see everything that is great about sport is a wonderful distraction for many,” he told the BBC on Friday.
The general advice of avoiding shaking hands or hugging and kissing has not filtered through to leading owner and banker Rich Ricci.
“It’s great that it’s on, it’s fantastic,” he said.
“I’ve been shaking hands all week, not in line with the government’s guidelines probably but I’ve been delighted for people to come up and say hello.”
Another event that has carried on is badminton’s All England Championships, where organisers have doubled the amount of hand sanitisers in the complex and installed a self-isolation room in case someone feels the symptoms.
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