How football is handling the pandemic

Just to get this out of the way, when I say “football” I mean “soccer” – that’s what we call the sport here in the UK.

Football is one of the world’s biggest forms of entertainment. Top professional leagues regularly bring in huge television audiences, and the quadrennial World Cup is viewed by billions of people around the world. While we have yet to really feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the world of televised entertainment – aside from a few shows like soap operas which have either cut down their episodes or gone on hiatus – football has seen the biggest, most immediate impact. Cinema is of course affected too.

Here in the UK, many questions have been raised about how football clubs have handled the pandemic. Some Premier League teams, which are highly profitable and employ players making hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, have been justly criticised for placing non-playing staff on leave, with British taxpayers expected to foot the bill for their unpaid salaries while the pandemic goes on. Some of these clubs have since reversed their decisions, motivated, no doubt, by the outpouring of public anger at the move. Others have not, and will continue to furlough their staff for as long as they can get away with it.

The Premier League is the top division in English football.

Many of the Premier League’s top clubs are owned by individuals or business consortiums which have literally billions of pounds at their disposal, which is why people have been so angry at them. At a time when everyone in the country is expected to play their part and work together to overcome an event that is unprecedented since the Second World War, some super-rich clubs are behaving as though that’s somehow beneath them.

The players themselves aren’t much better. Many players, including some at the top clubs in the Premier League, aren’t excessively wealthy, and the income a player can expect to make decreases the further down the rankings their club is. But some players do earn mega-bucks – hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, often with bonuses on top of that. And so far, the Premier League’s players, both individually and collectively, have chosen not to take a pay cut. There was talk a couple of weeks ago at a laughable 30% cut, which seems to have recently been revised down to 25%, but thus far even this has not been enacted and many of the league’s top stars are still drawing these eye-watering salaries as the season enters its second month of being suspended.

As with the clubs themselves, some of these players seem to think that there’s one rule for the people of the country and another for them. At a time when everyone is having to make cutbacks and sacrifices, players and their association are not willing to do so. Some individuals have made contributions to charity, but by no means all of them have. A voluntary charitable donation, however nice that may be on the surface, is not the same as taking a significant pay cut to allow their clubs to retain non-playing staff and to reduce the burden on taxpayers and the country’s debt.

Public anger at these clubs will continue to grow, and clubs should not expect all to be forgiven when play can eventually resume. From a PR point of view, they need to get a handle on this immediately to avoid long-term damage to the reputation of not just individual clubs, but the leagues and sport themselves.

As we see in the United States in particular, some people are becoming impatient with the ongoing suspension to normal life, and we have already begun to see individuals and businesses campaigning for restrictions to be lifted – even though the pandemic and the dangers it poses to individuals and the healthcare system has not abated. We could talk all day about the merits of closing large parts of the economy, and while there’s nothing wrong with asking questions, we have to be prepared to hear answers we don’t like. We also have to understand and appreciate that, under circumstances such as these, not all opinions are equally valid. A researcher who is an expert in virology is going to be far better-placed to answer the question of how and when to ease restrictions than a football club executive who’s concerned about his club’s bottom line.

At time of writing, the lockdown in the UK is expected to last a minimum of three more weeks. Personally, as someone with health issues, I’d been advised by my doctor to stay at home and self-isolate for twelve weeks, and the earliest I could expect that advice to change would be in late June or early July. The lockdown presents football with a huge problem – with the season around three-quarters complete, what should happen?

Thus far, they have opted to kick the can down the road and say that they will simply resume the season when they believe it would be safe to do so – and most analysts expect this would take place with no spectators present. But with no end to the lockdown imminent, and a need to complete the season by the end of June for contractual reasons, football is in a bind. There are major contracts between both players and clubs and the leagues themselves and television companies. These contracts involve vast sums of money, and no one wants to be out of pocket. Many clubs also have sponsorship deals which begin and end on the 30th of June.

A football stadium.
Picture credit: Thomas Serer on Unsplash.

While there are several options, all of them have downsides. Recommencing the season before it is safe to do so would go against government advice, and quite probably the law. Even if it were deemed safe to restart play in May, this would mean players would have to fit in many more games into a far shorter window than they are used to, which could arguably affect the outcome of the season overall. Continuing the season past the 30th of June and into the summer would not only be a huge issue due to the contracts mentioned above, but would also mean clubs would have to cut out lucrative foreign tours which, for some teams, are a significant part of their annual revenue. Players would have little to no time to rest between seasons, and despite what some people feel about these players “only playing 90 minutes a week”, the amount of training and effort required for a player to perform at their peak when it comes to match day is intense, so they do need a break sometimes.

Another option would be to cancel next season altogether, and simply resume the current season in the autumn/winter months, perhaps with more friendly matches or a new tournament to make up the difference in the number of matches. This poses a number of issues for legal and contractual reasons, and doesn’t seem to have been seriously considered at this stage.

If the season has to be abandoned, the big issue that comes into play is fairness. For Liverpool, riding high at the top of the Premier League where they’ve been all season, not being declared champions is unfathomable. Yet a club like Aston Villa, currently battling to escape relegation, would surely argue that if the season had been able to finish they would have had a chance to avoid that fate. Money is also a huge factor – Premier League clubs get a huge amount of money each season from selling the television rights to their games, rights which are worth far less in lower divisions. So a club on the brink of promotion to the Premiership, like Fulham or Leeds, would want to see the season conclude with every team being allowed to move up or down in accordance with their current standings.

In the case of an abandoned or incomplete season, the choice between declaring it “null and void” or using current standings to promote and relegate clubs is huge. The Premier League may opt to try to fudge things, accepting promoted clubs from the Championship without relegating anyone, but this would only serve to further complicate matters.

How someone feels about this is undoubtedly going to be coloured by their favourite team’s status. Those hoping for a promotion will be wanting their team’s current league position to count, and those desperate to avoid relegation will want the whole season expunged if it can’t be completed. My club, AFC Wimbledon, have spent most of the season dancing just above the relegation zone in League One, so from a selfish point of view I’d be happy if the season were declared finished at this point!

The club I support – AFC Wimbledon.

The problem is that there’s no way to satisfy every club. In a normal season, everyone knows the rules and the playing field is as equal as it can be in a sport where money matters. Some individual clubs may complain about a match not going their way because of bad refereeing, but generally speaking they all know the rules and they all accept the outcome: win or lose, promoted or relegated. But this situation is not only unprecedented, it’s one which the Premier League and the Football Association seem to have had no contingency plans for. If they did, all they would have to say is: “if the season can’t be completed, outcome X will happen”, and point to the relevant section in their contract or rulebook. But no such rule exists, and it seems to be something which will be decided at the whim of executives and the clubs themselves, which can only lead to bitter feelings and recriminations.

Football needs to learn two lessons from the pandemic. Firstly, clubs must behave like they’re part of society and the country they inhabit. Their players may be mostly foreign, they may make a lot of money from other countries, but if they’re based here they need to remain aware of that, and at times of national emergency they need to behave better. Secondly, every major football league needs to establish clear rules for contingencies where a season cannot be completed. They could have one blanket rule, or they could make different rules depending on various factors, such as how far into the season the cancellation occurs. The rules would need to be agreed on by every club, and would thus become a part of the game. That way there would be no crying foul; everyone would know what they signed up for and things wouldn’t have to be decided on the fly by executives and clubs who all have a vested interest in getting a specific outcome to the current season.

These things apply to other sports too, and with leagues and competitions in sports around the world being cancelled, suspended, and postponed, it’s important for all of them to have a coordinated response which, as far as possible, is fair and doesn’t provide anyone an unfair advantage or disadvantage.

We will get through this pandemic and the lockdown will eventually end. It may not end quickly enough for some people, however, and it may be too late for the current football season to end in time. Sooner or later, big decisions will have to be made about what to do, and those decisions should be codified into the rules of the game for the future. As depressing as it may sound, this is unlikely to be the last ever pandemic, nor the final time the football season may have to be paused, postponed, or cancelled. Establishing what to do is important, and making sure that everyone who participates knows what to expect under such circumstances is vital for the integrity of the game.

Speaking for myself, I feel that if the season cannot be completed in its entirety, the fairest thing for the majority of clubs is to annul it and to begin next season without any relegations or promotions. Every club would remain in their current division, and no championships, medals, cups, etc. should be awarded. Next season would begin where this season began, and could hopefully be completed without interruption. Even though a number of matches have already been played, if the season cannot be played in its entirety it would be unfair to award titles and to promote or relegate teams based on where they currently sit. Some clubs may have had an easy run so far, and would be enjoying a higher league place, where others may have played all their tough matches and be hoping to regain lost ground against easier opposition. If there were only one or two matches left to play, perhaps ending the season based on current standings would be okay, but not with over a quarter of the season left to play. If an individual match had to be abandoned at the three-quarter mark, the current score would not be taken as the final score. Instead the match would be rescheduled, and if that were not possible then no score would be recorded. The same principle should apply to the season, even though I can understand the counter-arguments.

However things may currently look, it’s my hope that the season can be completed. If it can’t, it won’t be good for anyone as there is no way of satisfying everyone with the options available. However, as with everything else in these highly unusual times, the decision to restart play cannot be a financial or business decision and must be made by scientists, medical professionals, and government officials.

So I know this has been a big change to what I usually write about here on the blog. I try to keep things focused on the world of entertainment, but I feel that football does at least come close to that category! I may talk about football-related topics in future if and when I have something to say, as it’s a sport I follow and have an interest in.

Until next time!

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