Coronavirus pandemic: When will football return?

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WLB contributor Jack Lambden (@_JackL_) weighs up the pros and cons of the 2019/20 football season coming to a safe conclusion amidst the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus pandemic: When will football return?

Bloody hell, I miss football.

At the time of writing, it's been exactly eight weeks since the last major football match on European soil took place with a crowd of supporters in attendance and it could well be a year from that date that games are played in front of fans again.

Whilst re-runs of classic games of bygone days on Match of the Day bring a touch of nostalgia, it's nothing compared to live action that we all enjoy via our TV screens or attending matches in person.

It's not just the game itself, either. The pre-match pint, the walk to the ground, the terrace banter and for a lot of us, the research and betting opportunities that go with it. My partner and bank balance might be more pleased that I'm spending less time and money on football but my mind certainly isn't and although there has been a great deal of suffering across the globe, it's very hard to adjust to life without releases and a little bit of sin in your own little bubble.

However, in no way do I disagree with the sanctions so many governments have placed on its people in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. In fact, many including our own should have acted sooner in my view and it perhaps enabled spectator sports to go unaffected for longer than was necessary.

At best, the decision to allow 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans to travel to Liverpool for their Champions League tie at Anfield was a mistake. Some have described it as negligent but it certainly feels as if, had those making such crucial decisions had their time back, they would not have allowed away fans to travel at the very least.

Decisions on the return of the game we all love in the English leagues are, as expected, causing controversy and every player, manager, chief executive and fan up and down the country will have a different view on what is being labelled ‘Project Restart'.

Instead of basking in the Spring sunshine and enjoying a no doubt drama-filled end to the regular season, fans of clubs like Liverpool, Leeds, Coventry and many others are nervously awaiting to find out whether the long-awaited success they have been craving for so long is still within their grasp.

Should we even be contemplating sporting glory in a time of such international crisis? Or is a return of some non-essential aspects of life such as football more crucial than at first glance? I've weighed up the pros and cons of the 2019/20 football season finishing below:

Pros

Finances

The past few weeks has highlighted, as if we didn't already know it, that football at the top table is centred around money. Hey, most things in life are. But an abandonment of the game in England, where TV revenue is so high, would cause ripples through the game that would take years for some clubs to recover from.

You might be thinking “So what? The likes of Manchester City are bankrolled by billionaires”. Whilst that is true, it is not the same in every Premier League case. Clubs like Crystal Palace, Norwich and Southampton are not sitting on piles of unused cash and rely on revenue from broadcasting deals and matchday income (which they are already losing out on) to survive.

It may seem dramatic talking about clubs like that going under, but them falling on hard times does teams in the EFL and Non-League no favours at all. As Palace chairman Steve Parish explained, the Premier League pumps around £400m into the lower leagues each year as part of parachute and solidarity payments and the league itself it just a mechanism for distributing those funds so a completed televised season is in everyone's best interests

Competition integrity

The ‘how’ in terms of a season completion is the main crux of the current debate rather than the ‘if’, but a campaign coming to a conclusion one way or another ensures that we have league winners, European places confirmed and promotions/relegations settled without the need for legal and moral disputes for months to come.

It would ensure England’s places in the Champions League and Europa League are valid and that teams can suitably plan for whenever next season commences

Boosting morale

A global lockdown would be tough at the best of times and being without our national game is making it a lot harder. As I mentioned, re-runs of classic games are great to watch back but they don’t provide the same buzz as live action. A return of action in any form would boost morale for fans up and down the country but would also assist players and coaches who have, like so many people unable to do their job, lost a sense of purpose.

A recent FIFPRO survey of 1,600 footballers found that 13% of male players had developed symptoms consistent with depression, with 16% harbouring feelings of anxiety. Players get a natural high from running out on the pitch and performing and no matter how much they earn, mental health can affect anyone at any time.

Games of FIFA and Zoom calls with fans may pass the time but it doesn’t come close to replicating the experience of playing professionally so a return of the game at the top level may help curtail an increasing problem into a crisis of its own

Cons

Safety

By far the biggest issue, comfortably outweighing any financial repercussions of not finishing the season.

For a Premier League game to go ahead behind closed doors, it’s likely that near 300 people would need to be in attendance once you factor the media presence into mix. There is a presumption that at least the vast majority of those people would need to be tested for COVID-19 twice per week and many of the plans that have been leaked so far do not appear to answer the inevitable question around what will happen if tests come back positive.

Whereas one or two positive samples in a squad may be manageable, if a significant outbreak amongst the players has occurred, is it really fair that the remainder of the squad carry on fulfilling fixtures whilst their teammates isolate?

The players union, the PFA, is paramount to discussions between the relevant stakeholders who are reviewing Project Restart as, without sufficient reassurance for the players, games simply won’t happen. In addition, one factor the police cannot guarantee is groups of fans turning up outside stadiums to celebrate a triumph with their fellow supporters which could negate the safety benefits of playing games behind closed doors altogether.

Although these questions remain to be answered, at least we can say with confidence that the Premier League, EFL and individual clubs are funding their own testing regimes and therefore not pulling on the testing resource required by key workers across the nation

It’s just not the same

Some within the game are arguing that football should not return until all social distancing restrictions can be restricted. You can certainly sympathise with the argument that football without fans just isn’t as good, with the prolonged period of games without crowds potentially hampering gate receipts for years to come if people turn their back on attending games in the future through safety fears or a loss of interest.

However, it’s widely acknowledged that full stadiums is a sight we are unlikely to see in 2020 and football simply cannot stop for that long if the future of many clubs, already plunged into doubt, is to be secured. Other aspects of society will, in the coming months, begin to open back up albeit with restrictions and sport is just another component that will have to adjust to the ‘new normal’

The flip slide of the integrity argument

This starts to delve into the ‘how’, but there is some opposition to games at neutral venues. Clubs within the Premier League’s bottom six are said to be revolting to plans to play their remaining home fixtures away from familiar surroundings, arguing that they lose the home ‘advantage’.

Brighton have, in particular, expressed their view that neutral venues throws the integrity of the competition into doubt but with some clubs already having dug up their pitch in the past few weeks (Southampton and Bournemouth to name just two), games at all 92 venues is just not going to be possible.

It could also be said that there would hardly be much advantage to be had from a ground with empty stands, unlike the 40,000 that pack the likes of Villa Park every other weekend. 

All in all, it’s a tough balance for the governing bodies to contemplate but the desire is clearly there for the season to be completed. The Government will give the final green light on the resumption of the season once their five tests have been satisfied for an easing of lockdown measures.

Lessons I’m sure will be learned from how other European leagues who are ahead of the UK in the COVID-19 curve start-up and deal with issues as-and-when they arise.

In these uncertain times, it's perhaps unwise to speculate on anything the future may hold. But if we don't speculate on a return to some form of normality, what have we got left?

About Author

I've been betting on football since 2011, a year when I made a fair bit of money on Southampton to win each home game after a New Year's resolution to be more optimistic about my side’s chances. After 21 wins at St Mary’s out of 22, I’d built up a fair pot of money! I enjoy researching (almost!) as much as the winning, using a combination of stats, team news, context and general football knowledge to make my selections. Outside of football, you’ll find me down the pub enjoying a few pints or at a gig most likely if the girlfriend will allow it!

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