Premier League prepares, but player concern must be addressed


As the coronavirus continues to affect all aspects of life, the English Premier League said on Friday that it will return “when safe and appropriate to do so.” But “when” is uncertain and what is “safe,” especially as a star like Manchester City‘s Sergio Aguero says the players are “scared”?

The imperative to restart is clear from a business perspective — a report earlier this month said that voiding the rest of the season could cost £1.137 billion, £762 million of which is tied up in TV broadcasting contracts — but if I am reading the mood correctly on social media and radio phone-ins, the nation does not yet have an appetite for football’s return. As a Football Supporters’ Association statement said last week, “health comes first.”

After Friday’s video conference of all 20 clubs, there was no commitment to a specific resumption date, but the weekend of June 13 is the reported target for “Project Restart” (UEFA requires a plan by May 25). Is that a realistic proposition? For the 71 clubs outside the Premier League, the problems are even more critical because of their greater dependence on gate money, of which there will be none until who knows when. It is probable that some would not survive.

There are five weeks until mid-June and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that the country “is already past the peak of the pandemic” with the rate of death and hospital admissions falling. Next week could see some easing of the lockdown, which began on March 23, and the mood might have changed considerably by the start of next month.

It is clear that the government is in favour of the Premier League returning to TV screens next month. It would certainly lift the morale of fans across the nation and keep people indoors on light summer evenings, with matches having to be played behind closed doors and in up to 10 neutral stadiums.

The plan is to keep these venues a secret until the last minute to avoid fans congregating, but information is sure to leak. Indeed, Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson has said a resumption is a “non-starter,” citing fears that fans of Jurgen Klopp’s champions-elect will party in their thousands outside any ground the title is won, at the expense of social distancing protocols.

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The clubs might not like the prospect of losing home advantage, but will have little choice if the remaining 92 games are to be played in a 56-day stretch. More of a problem are the valid concerns of players, without whom there can be no games; ESPN reported this week that many have reservations, and Aguero is the highest-profile star to speak out publicly.

“The majority of players are scared because they have family, they have children, they have babies,” he told a Spanish TV station.

“If we continue to play and there is danger, and we ignore that while people are dying somewhere in the world,” Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger said on German TV, “I don’t know if that would sit right on my conscience.”

Could they refuse to play? What happens if one of them falls ill? Assurances will be needed to convince them that every possible safeguard is in place and risks are minimal. Another factor, according to Brighton’s Glenn Murray, is that football should not place unnecessary strain on the emergency services.

Beyond meticulous plans to isolate teams in hotels and wrap the hundreds needed at each stadium on game days in a sanitised bubble, masks and snoods would be worn in training and thousands of tests required to ensure nobody was either incubating or carrying the virus.

Physiotherapists wearing protective equipment would treat players, but even then there are no guarantees the virus would not spread. What of the risks in a contact sport from tackling, marking at corners and the formation of defensive walls? Sweat, saliva and blood could all present potential danger.

You can see why FIFA medical committee chairman Michel D’Hooghe said this week that no football should be played before September, and seasons in the likes of France and Netherlands have been abandoned.

But Germany, Spain and Italy — like England — believe it is no crime to at least try to get the show back on the road and provide the season with an authentic ending. Would it be disrespectful to those who have lost their lives, as well as the heroic doctors and nurses on the front line? I don’t think so.

Brighton, Watford and Tottenham are among the clubs that have given up their grounds for use by the National Health Service. Manchester United are providing 60,000 meals for health workers. Chelsea have given free use of owner Roman Abramovich’s hotel.

In addition to the league-wide #PlayersTogether initiative, there are numerous examples of kindness and generosity from individual players like Marcus Rashford, who is paying for meals for needy children in Manchester, and Liverpool‘s Andy Robertson, who has donated to food banks in Glasgow.

As a commentator for BT Sport, one of the rights holders in England, it would be a strange experience to cover a game in the conditions being discussed, possibly wearing a mask and maybe with no co-commentator, fewer cameras and sanitised equipment. Banter in the press room or chit-chat with managers would be out; instead, it will be a case of going straight to the booth upon arrival, covering the game and then going home.

In March, we did not travel to Austria for Man United’s Europa League win against LASK, due to concern about the virus’ spread, and it was a soulless, surreal occasion, with players’ shouting audible and no roar to celebrate goals. It was a reminder that football without fans cannot work for long.

It might not be what we know, but the game must go on, if it can. Nobody can accuse football of not being sensitive to the unfolding tragedy or failing to realise that it really does not matter when the world is in the grip of a pandemic, but it is also true that millions love and miss the game greatly.

Until there is a vaccine, it will not be completely safe to participate in any activity and it may be that the game is fighting a losing battle and the season will have to be declared null and void. That would be a pity, given most teams have only nine matches to play and nobody can know when next season will start.

For now, the smart money says the Premier League will be back in five weeks’ time, so long as the players are on board. With every possible safeguard in place and risks cut to the bare minimum, football — like any other business — should do all it can to save itself. The alternative is that there might not be much of a game to come back to.