Premier League Will Be Allowed to Ride Shotgun Into Unknown Frontier
And we’re off. Project Refund: Phase One is now operational. Although in the interests of accuracy the plan to complete the Premier League season would perhaps be better restyled as Project No Refund, given the only reason anyone wants to play professional football right now – never mind the cant about national morale and (spare me) “sporting integrity” – is to avoid repaying the broadcasters.
There is no shame in this, or need to pretend otherwise. Clubs are cultural assets. Their good health is important. Football supports a large associated workforce outside the better-off elite players. But it is also in everyone’s interest to be clear on the sense of commercial urgency that lies behind every decision taken along the way, including those successfully voted through at Monday’s Premier League meeting.
It is a gentle first step. As of Tuesday afternoon clubs can return to carefully managed individual training, the same process England’s cricketers will shortly begin, and the same kind of thing that is happening in parks all around the country.
The next phase will involve training in groups of up to six, possibly from next week. Finally clubs will look to agree 11-versus-11 training, presumably with the kind of token restrictions seen in the Bundesliga over the weekend, with masks for substitutes and prim attempts to enforce physical distancing.
After which the Premier League will look to restart close to, on, or slightly after its current flag in the sand, 15 June.
There will of course be extreme reactions to this process. Understandably so: we are in an extreme situation. The first of these is the obvious response that it is unsafe to consider playing professional football right now, and that all attempts to do so will put lives at risk.
The other main objection is that the football produced will be a shabby, synthetic imitation, a shotgun wedding before an empty congregation; and that it will therefore be unfair on those who stand to lose (ie experience relegation) given the skewed sporting environment.
Both of these objections are unarguably valid. At the same time both are, in some sense, immaterial to what is about to happen.
Firstly, on risk. There is no doubt that football’s return will be hurried through ahead of what can be deemed absolutely safe, and that thanks to its clout and profile the Premier League will be allowed to ride shotgun into this unknown frontier.
The Bundesliga may have returned successfully last weekend, but there are good reasons for this. Germany has a quarter of the UK death toll to date. Germany has six times fewer new cases of Covid-19 diagnosed every day. Germany has a mature, competent leadership with a clear and transparent plan.
The Bundesliga itself still has its 51% ownership rule, still retains a community aspect at the top level, and still seems able to act in a climate of general good faith. Germany has earned its place at the front of this queue, although even then there are plenty with misgivings about the resumption.
These include some medical professionals. There are concerns Covid-19 remains essentially a mystery disease, one whose long-term effects on the body are unknown. Footballers often have brittle immune systems due to the high intensity of their training. What is certain is that English football is a ruthless business that will push its component parts as far as they can go. Would you trust its opinion on your pre-scandal asbestos roof, or the smoking “health-scare”? Would you trust it with a trunk full of plutonium?
It is also worth being clear about who exactly is most at risk from the Premier League resuming. According to official figures the highest death rate from Covid-19 up to 20 April was among men working in low-skilled leisure and service occupations; or in other words those on the periphery, those who make the industry work as opposed to those making the decisions.
Cleaners, carpenters, electricians, manual workers, security guards, transport drivers: these are the people who have died in large numbers with this disease, not CEOs or athletes. These are the people football will vote to put further at risk as the return to action approaches.
And yet, at the same time it is self-evident that this is going to happen. And that in pressing forward the Premier League is simply following the tide of British society’s governing and corporate classes. Every decision taken right now involves an appalling balancing act, between virus control and total economic collapse. Every decision is by definition pragmatic and flawed.
Against this background it would be absurd to expect English football and the Premier League to make sense of it all, to set some noble and self-sacrificing example. This is a league whose members, we hear via noises off, are concerned their fraternal brothers in arms will lie about infection rates to get matches cancelled (the Maya Angelou quote about believing someone when they tell you who they are springs to mind).
This is an organisation lashed together by shared self-interest, whose members have spent the last two months scrabbling for handholds like the doomed ship’s crew on the Raft of the Medusa as it slips beneath the waves. Don’t expect caution or selflessness when these are scarcely present elsewhere in society. And perhaps, who knows, there is something to be said for simply ploughing ahead when all is uncertain.
Against this background it seems absurd to object that the rejigged season’s end will be either artificial or unfair. This may well be the case, but on the other hand the basic stitching of society is also coming apart, so there’s that too.
And let’s face it, elite level football is already unfair. Football isn’t unfair because of an absence of home fans for a few rescheduled matches. It’s skewed because of its ludicrous finances, because the rich can dominate and get richer. This is not a function of an unexpected bat virus.
At which point, with best wishes and fingers crossed for all involved, it is now all systems go for Phase One. A few things seem certain at this point. It’s going to be divisive, messy and worrying in so many ways. Or in other words, it’s going to be quite a lot like football.
The Guardian Sport