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World Cup

Soccer union sees rising case load amid virus shutdown

(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

By GRAHAM DUNBAR

GENEVA (AP) Soccer players in Belarus are worried about playing games in the only European top-tier league

during the coronavirus pandemic, their global union said Tuesday.

“Frankly, it’s not comprehendible how this can be going on,” Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, general secretary of the FIFPro players' union, told reporters in a conference call.

“Yes, there are players who are reaching out concerned,” Baer-Hoffmann said, noting there are union members in Belarus though the FIFPro network does not have an affiliate in the former Soviet country.

Labor issues in soccer are mounting as a near-total shutdown of the world’s favorite sport extends with no end in sight.

FIFPro noted the first reported case of a club opting for liquidation - seven-time Slovakian champion Zilina - after offering players a “take it or leave it” pay cut of 80%.

Help could soon come from world soccer body FIFA which is working on

worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which Baer-Hoffmann believes will target the most vulnerable in a multi-billion-dollar industry.

“We need to safeguard the weakest links in this pyramid,” he said, adding that FIFA has been on the same page during a wide range of talks with FIFPro and others.

The Belarus league is among the poorest in UEFA’s 55 member nations. New broadcasting deals were signed since starting the league season on March 19 leaving many bemused at how social distancing advice is ignored.

Fans entering the stadiums in Belarus this past weekend were given antiseptic hand gel but few wore masks for protection.

Belarus state president Alexander Lukashenko has been defiant about not limiting people’s movement, saying: "It's better to die standing than to live on your knees."

In Slovakia, Zilina is second in the now-suspended league and has refused to negotiate with the national player union, FIFPro said.

The move toward liquidation of the club follows the sale in January of 20-year-old forward Róbert Boženík to Feyenoord for a reported fee of about 4.5 million euros ($4.9 million).

“It seems very much like they are using (the pandemic) as an opportunity to cut costs,” Baer-Hoffmann said.

“We have seen good and bad in terms of the response to the crisis,” he said, praising Serbian club Čukarički for pre-paying all salaries until June.

UEFA-led talks with European soccer leaders have aimed to complete the club season by June 30, when most player contracts expire.

That target already looks unlikely. Extending the season and contracts into July and perhaps beyond are preferred to ending early, which would complicate broadcasting deals.

“I don’t think that’s an option for anybody,” Baer-Hoffmann said of voiding the 2019-20 season. “We have to face the reality but now it’s not in any way responsible to make that consideration.”

Baer-Hoffmann said extending player contracts from June 30 until the season's end was a strong solution though legally complex - more so for players who already have transfer agreements to change clubs on July 1.

“That requires a little bit of good faith from clubs,” the union leader said.

After two of Europe’s richest clubs, Barcelona and Juventus, reached a deal with players for salary cuts, clubs in England’s wealthy Premier League will meet with union leaders on Wednesday.

Salary cuts are not so simple in many of the 65 countries where FIFPro has affiliate members.

“The average player we represent is not a millionaire,” Baer-Hoffmann said.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Updated March 31, 2020

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