The virus stunned society and will create whole new ball game

The 'new normal' will decimate clubs and changes the way we look at everything

Football eh? What a distant memory. The 2019/20 season will forever be remembered as the one where football was disrupted. However, football also fell into insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

The knock on effect of all of the decisions made in March and beyond in light of the Coronavirus crisis is monumental for the sport. There aren’t enough pages in this issue to detail how much is affected by the postponement of all football. I don’t even think I have the brain capacity required to think about it all. 

Within football, there is still a tremendous amount of work to do and things to consider. There are a million questions to be answered. We’re a little closer to those questions being answered now, with the league set to return on June 17. Some clubs wished to see the league start later in the month, but the majority chose a mid-June date for ‘Project Restart’. 

As things stand, there are still uncertainties such as what will happen to next season, as well as a question mark over player contract and wages. Some of these questions are closer to being answered than others. 

Mid-May saw small groups of players being allowed to train with no contact. Testing was ramped up ahead of a return to ‘contact’ training for clubs before the end of May, which did see several positive results coming back.  It’s a concerning time for everyone in the sport, especially with a return date announced. Players need to be able to stand up for themselves if they don’t feel comfortable and to take responsibility for themselves outside of training and playing.  

Thankfully, what we’ve seen to date has shown that most footballers and clubs are very considerate of the heath and safety of themselves, their families and fans. With the exception of a highly irresponsible Spurs training session, the concern has been more important than the need to play. There is the matter of physical fitness to be taken into consideration as the league returns. Being unable to train as a squad for a number of weeks will possibly have taken its toll on even the fittest of players. Staying at home and self-training would be difficult and less effective than as a team. Hopefully players won’t suffer from injuries more easily or more frequently.

There could be rule changes implemented to balance out fitness worries, such as more substitutes or shorter games. The latter seems unlikely, but we have seen five substitutes (made in three stoppages) working in the Bundesliga.  Of course, speculation is rife surrounding how the leagues will be completed. The season could be shortened or called off with no notice, depending on how the situation develops. What that means for teams being promoted, teams being relegated and teams winning the league, we do not know. 

France led the way in crowning Paris Saint Germain as champions of Ligue 1. Club Brugge were also deemed winners of the Belgium League and Celtic took the Scottish title. All of those leagues were called off and the standings taken as the final results. Any teams in relegation positions were relegated.

The Dutch league took a different approach and deemed the league void. There were no champions, no teams relegated, no teams promoted. Any of the European places were given out as the league stood at the time of cancellation.  Okay, there are more important things going on in the world at the moment, but imagine the disappointment of being a Liverpool fan if the season had been rendered null and void. On the flip side, it seems incredibly unfair on those in a relegation battle, teams who have a chance of saving themselves or are on the brink of making the play-offs or automatic promotion would be disadvantaged. It’s just not sport as we know it. 

In my view, the most sensible option is to complete this season whenever it is one hundred per cent safe to do so, even if that means taking another break between the games due to take place in June and the latter stages of the season. That would pave the way for the 2020/21 season to start late and perhaps be shorter to accommodate the upcoming Euro 2020 (in 2021) tournament.

My original view was not to have any games fully behind closed doors. But in light of the Bundesliga returning under those circumstances, I’m now open to that idea as a fan. It’s amazing what a few months on the sofa can do to your opinions!  It might not be something we are comfortable with, but football can be played without a crowd and I’ve found that without fans I’ve been more focussed on the actual gameplay. That’s not to say I’d take it forever, but it’s turned out to be a better compromise than I initially thought. 

Is there even a possibility that technology could help fans interact with the games? Maybe season ticket holders could be allowed to stream games or have their voices heard as part of a virtual crowd? It would be something unlike we’ve ever seen before but I think we’re growing used to new possibilities these days! We don’t want a situation where exhausted players suffer long-term injuries in subsequent seasons due to fixture cramming, so this is going to take some careful (and hopefully sensible!) consideration from the footballing authorities.

There’s no use speculating though, we need to just wait to hear what further steps are confirmed – it’s like the January transfer window all over again! In the meantime, to avoid the psychological impact of the loss of sport in so many people’s lives, there has been plenty of substitute action to keep us occupied.  Players have taken part in live streaming computer games, television stations are doing their best to replay classic sporting moments and clubs have streamed classic games online. 

Social media is providing videos of footballers going about their lives whilst social distancing. We’re reading positive news stories of footballers donating to charity and helping out the NHS. It might not be sport as we know it, but it’s filling a gap! Looking back over a period of time during which football was in a sporting limbo is quite something to behold. 

European games were scheduled to take place at the beginning of March. In the first half of the month, several Champions League matches did go ahead, some of which were played behind closed doors. Despite this many clubs, including Paris Saint Germain, did have fans turn up outside the stadium making the socially distancing efforts mildly useless. Although it did remove responsibility from the clubs and UEFA. 

The Europa League suffered a similar fate with most games taking part without a crowd. The situation escalated somewhat as Wolves requested to have their game at Olympiacos called off following a positive Covid-19 case within the Greek side’s squad. This request was denied, which was a certain case of money overpowering the right course of action.  It was a strange time for football as some countries had taken further steps to suspend football leagues and some hadn’t. The nature of European competitions meant that teams from various countries with varying rules were meeting up and playing, it wasn’t one rule fits all.

March 13th was a turning point for many sports across the world. UEFA confirmed that all competitions would be suspended. In the UK, the FA suspended the top four leagues with immediate effect. However, the National League was not faced with postponement at that time, with the theory being that the “mass gathering” effect of higher leagues would not be an issue for lower-league football. The obvious happened and more people turned up to watch the those teams play that weekend, meaning that on the Monday the National League was also suspended. 

Games could possibly have been played behind closed doors, but one of the points raised by the FA was that emergency services would still be required to be at a stadium whether there was a crowd or not. During a pandemic, it seemed sensible to allow those essential services to be deployed where they are more needed. 

News of how Premier League teams were directly affected by Covid-19 unveiled in the coming days. Mikel Arteta tested positive for Coronavirus and having played Arsenal the week before, the West Ham squad and staff were told to self-isolate as a precaution. Across the league a few others were either confirmed to have the virus or were self-isolating over fears they may have been in contact with affected people.  We have since learnt that following testing ahead of returning to training, further players and staff have tested positive for the virus, even two months after football was postponed.

Once the global situation had become clearer and football leagues across the world knew they would need time to work out what the plan of action was, the announcement was made that Euro 2020 would be postponed until 2021. But would still be called ‘Euro 2020’, obviously!  Away from football, there were a few incredibly surprising decisions made in sport throughout this pandemic. The biggest disappointment being that the Cheltenham festival went ahead, despite there being a confirmed case of Coronavirus in the town itself. Such an event is a mass gathering to end all mass gatherings. It was a questionable decision, to say the least.

There was also a question mark over the Australian Grand Prix, which looked as though it was very much going ahead. A member of the McLaren team had tested positive for the virus and the team pulled out of the race. A number of other drivers chose to fly home and the Formula One season was postponed for the foreseeable future. The decision was very last minute, being confirmed the day before qualifying was due to take place. 

In terms of social responsibility, at least football authorities acted relatively quickly in comparison. The bottom line is this virus does not care what team you turn up to watch, how much money you’ve paid for your ticket, if there are 100 people or 101 people in a sporting venue.  Those sporting events that did take place between the knowing-there-was-something-brewing phase and the we-better-call-it-all-off stage undoubtedly spread the virus unnecessarily. It’s not only the people in attendance in the arenas that could have suffered the ill-effects of Covid-19 – it’s their family members, friends, colleagues, the elderly and the vulnerable.  

It’s all been said thousands of times, but at times like this football can be a term that’s used to describe a community, one that does the right thing for the health and safety of all of those invested. That includes players, club staff, supporters and the emergency services that keep events running.

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