As the English Premier League ponders how to end the 2019/20 season following the suspension caused by the Covid-19 crisis, former Liverpool striker Florent Sinama Pongolle can relate to the situation more than most.
Now 35, Sinama Pongolle is forging a media career as a football consultant for Canal+ in France, but he remains best remembered in England for scoring Liverpool’s equalising goal against Olympiacos. That strike sparked a comeback in a 3-1 victory that kept their 2004/05 UEFA Champions League hopes alive. The rest is history.
However, the Frenchman, who played for Atlético Madrid and Real Zaragoza, is less known for his time with Thai League club Chainat and the circumstances that led to their relegation in 2016.
Sinama Pongolle headed to Southeast Asia midway through the Thai League season and scored an impressive 13 times as his side fought hard to avoid the drop. But with three matches remaining, and his team in the relegation zone, the season was prematurely ended due to the death of the revered Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
At the time, Muang Thong United were a healthy five points clear of second-placed Bangkok United and were declared champions. The clubs sitting in the bottom three places were relegated, despite fact that just five points separated seven clubs from 11th to 17th in an 18-team league.
Chainat paid a very heavy price for being in the wrong position at the wrong time. “To be honest, the first feeling was that it was unfair, there was frustration,” says Sinama Pongolle to These Football Times. “At the beginning, everything was absolutely negative. We were on a roll, we were on our way out of trouble. We had had some great results against the top sides. I think we would definitely have finished outside the relegation zone. Life decided something different.”
With three sides going down, one had already been cut adrift. Chainat sat on 30 points, level with Army United. Two other clubs were on 31 points, and there were also clubs on 33, 34 and 35 points in an extremely congested section of the table.
Clearly, Chainat could well have stayed up. However, rather than go to war with the Thai football authorities over a decision that was made in haste, little was said in a country that has strict laws against saying or publishing anything that could be interpreted as disrespectful to the monarchy.
“When I spoke to the president, I was very upset, and I was reminding him that this was his club and it was his money and he wasn’t even fighting,” says Sinama Pongolle. “When I realised that he wasn’t fighting the decision, I understood that this was a very sensitive subject. You couldn’t show your anger like you might have seen in a European country. In Thailand, I understood that you had to stay quiet and keep your thoughts to yourself. You can speak to your friends and your family about this but you can’t make your opinion public.
“After I spoke to the president of Chainat, I spoke to a friend who had connections with FIFA and asked him what might happen. He said there was no real desire to change anything, so I understood that we had to let it go. Culture and life are different everywhere and sometimes we need to accept how it is.
“In football, we are used to the possibility that something can happen for exceptional reasons. When you saw the love and passion that the Thai people had for their king, after a while I understood that it was something that was much more important than football at that moment. Today, we are going through something that is very different but also has some similarities. Again, it is a time where there are exceptional circumstances.”
Rather than rail against an apparent injustice, Sinama Pongolle was determined to put things right the following year, and he stayed on as the club were promoted in 2017. “We used our frustration as motivation the following season and returned to the top tier. I was always determined to stay. I had been there for only a few months and was doing well. I wanted to be true to myself. This club had come to me and they had treated me well. Now they were in trouble, I wasn’t going to leave them. My heart told me I would not leave.”
The early end to that season in Thai football is one of the few precedents that can be referred to as football’s governing bodies now wrestle with decisions muddied by the competing interests of sporting integrity, TV and sponsorship money and player contracts.
Turning his attention back to the present day, Sinama Pongolle feels the only sensible course of action in England is to put player welfare first and call a halt to a season that still has nine or ten matches to go. “My feeling is that we should end the season right now,” he says. “I believe the most important thing is the physical aspect and protecting the players. If you start the league again now, the reality is that the international players will potentially go for about three seasons in a row without a proper break, which is even more the case in England because they don’t have a winter break.
“If you started again now, they would finish in the middle of July, just before the Champions League qualifiers start. And you can’t start the league after the middle of August because you need to finish again in the middle of May because we have the European Championship next year.
“From there, the players will have no breaks during the FIFA periods because there are World Cup qualifiers, so it sounds crazy. With the break that the players have had already, which is already almost a month, players need a minimum of three or four weeks to get back on track.
“You can say that they have been training at home, but it’s not the same. Even during the summer break, players have an exercise programme to stay in shape. And then you have at least four weeks of pre-season and we are in exactly the same situation now. I would go for protecting the players. You want to maintain the quality of the football and intensity, but if you start the season again now, you will not have the same end to the season that you would have had without the break.”
Some pundits, club executives and players have argued that the season should be cancelled and the title effectively voided if the remaining matches cannot be completed. But Sinama Pongolle has no time for this argument, with Liverpool leading Manchester City by 25 points. “In England, you can’t cancel,” he said. “What are you going to cancel when Liverpool are 25 points ahead? Everyone knows that Liverpool are going to be champions.
“The problem in football is that we feel the need to have the same rules everywhere. Every league is different. For the Premier League, no one is going to be upset if Liverpool are given the title. Maybe only a mad Manchester City fan who is crazy about his team and thinks that Liverpool can still lose eight games in a row. I don’t think anyone will complain – even Pep Guardiola would admit that this was fair.
“In France, it is maybe a different situation, and in Spain it is definitely a different situation, where there are only two points between the leaders. Maybe there you could consider cancelling the season.”
Nevertheless, matters off-the-field will also dictate the decisions that will have to made sooner rather than later. In his new role as a football consultant, Sinama Pongolle is well aware of such matters. “In many countries, they cannot really consider cancelling because of the money made by TV rights,” he said. “And what are you going to do about players whose contracts expire at the end of June because that’s the reality? If the season finishes in mid-July, how are they going to deal with players whose contracts are up at the end of June? It’s very complicated in so many different ways.”
By Paul Murphy @PaulmurphyBKK