COVID-19 shifts in football reaffirm the real priority of the sport
In the many countries where the COVID-19 pandemic is not remotely controlled, there is a clear choice ahead of the sports leagues. While a second (or third) wave crest, a lockdown discipline collapses, vaccinations lag, and a new, more contagious variant spreads, these leagues have two options.
You can take a break or carry on.
In other words, they have to choose between fair competition and safeguarding earnings.
It’s pretty clear what league we’re playing in. The NFL has been a soldier all season, despite the breakouts, postponement of games, and suspension of players. For some teams, this meant compressed schedules and the associated competitive disadvantage. And whatever you think of Dabo Swinney’s low rank on the Ohio State team who creamed his Clemson Tigers at the Sugar Bowl on Friday, the point is that a team with 11 games on their record faced a Buckeyes team with only six – and the Tigers were without their COVID-positive offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
But the games had to go on.
The English Premier League and every other major league take the money. And that at the expense of your own competition. A fourth EPL game since the beginning of December was postponed on Saturday. After Newcastle-Aston Villa was canceled on December 1st due to positive cases, the fight between Everton and Manchester City was also postponed on Monday.
Fulham was due to play Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday but had to ask for a postponement. Fulham’s Sunday game with Burnley has now also been postponed after more cases were discovered in the Fulham roster. Some question marks remain during the Chelsea City showdown on Sunday as City reportedly go without five COVID-positive players.
Spores could also get into trouble. Sergio Reguilon, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso broke London lockdown rules to celebrate Christmas with West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini and a large group of family and friends. Lamela and Lo Celso have tested positive since then. Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho was particularly upset for sending Reguilon a suckling pig because he believed he was celebrating Christmas alone.
Despite these troubles and indiscretions, the Premier League is determined to move forward as calls to suspend the season mount as the UK grapples with the worst of its second outbreaks and much of the country remains under strict lockdown. West Brom manager Sam Allardyce publicly said he would support such a hiatus. “I’m 66 years old and the last thing I want to do is catch COVID,” he told Sky Sports. “I am very concerned about myself and football in general.”
Nevertheless, the league continues. Just like all other leagues.
Just like the football association has told the clubs that they must take part in their FA Cup games as long as 14 players are allowed to play – a starting grid and the three permissible substitutions.
The calculation here is pretty clear. The schedule for the Premier League is already tight, as last season was dragged deep into summer and the newly planned Euro 2020 is due for June 11, which means that by then all club business must be completed. A scatter game that has been postponed here and there can be made up for, even if it disadvantages the participating teams. If the entire show is delayed, it will be unclear when these game rounds could be played.
And there is the problem. Contracts with broadcasters require an exact number of games. If those games didn’t ship, the Premier League would once again put itself in a position where it could be liable for hundreds of millions of pounds in refunds to its various TV partners. It narrowly escaped that fate in the summer by playing the games from mid-June to July, the traditional off-season.
That meant players had almost no break between campaigns and teams had little time to prepare, which led to all sorts of wonky outcomes – and a relative kind of parity created by everyone’s stress.
Football wasn’t exactly better for it, even if the chaos was entertaining. And Manchester City’s title hopes could well be dashed if they are forced to keep playing for a number of games despite a lack of regulars. In that regard, Liverpool have lost three center-backs – Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip – to injuries that could keep them out for half a year, possibly as a result of the game’s overload. Several players at Newcastle are reportedly still suffering from long-term illnesses.
The league will not compromise on the number of games each team will have to play. The quality of the competition or its credibility and fairness are not what the league is about – just the quantity. All that matters is getting the games done and collecting those TV contracts. And there is a justification that it would be hard to do without all those hundreds of millions in a pandemic.
Sport itself is the victim. But that is obviously preferable to making profits.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a columnist at Emox News and a lecturer in sports communications at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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