It will “lift the spirit of the nation”, Dominic Raab said a few days ago. The Foreign Secretary was not talking about the launch of a nationwide Covid-19 testing programme. He was referring to the plan (codename: Project Restart) to resume the Premier League football season, which has been suspended since 13 March, when it was revealed that Arsenal’s manager, Mikel Arteta, had tested positive for the virus.
Another ten days would pass before the country went into lockdown. The government was still flirting with the “herd immunity” concept when the football authorities called time, and would not have minded sport carrying on as usual; just as it wouldn’t mind a bit of footie action to jolly up the public right now.
From the outset, the football authorities’ original plan, which was to suspend games for a while, then resume some time in April, looked wildly optimistic. But English football, or, rather, the Premier League, has behaved as if things would turn out differently at home than they had elsewhere in Europe, where all of the league programmes have also been suspended since March. They turned out differently, yes, but not the way we hoped. They turned out worse. London — where 12 Premier League and Football League clubs are based — is the hardest hit capital city in the world in terms of cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
Yet the talk is still of restarting the season, for the Premier League at least and, one presumes, for the Championship. Everyone else has downed tools for good or soon will. Amateur and semi-professional football was brought to a halt on 24 March. The National League’s two divisions, that is the 5th and 6th tiers of the English football structure, voted to follow suit on 22 April, all for health and safety reasons. Tiers three and four, League One and League Two, should finally go into indefinite recess some time in the near future, as their clubs would lose money by playing behind closed doors. So better not to play at all, even if it is a tragedy for clubs who fear facing a £200m ‘hole’ by the autumn.
So Project Restart is not about enabling the millions of people who regularly play football in England to put the cleats on again. It is not about promoting health and activity in a population which is the third-most obese in Europe behind Malta and Turkey. It is not about protecting 5,300 amateur and semi-professional clubs which are the hearts and souls of their communities, and which stand to be ravaged by the pandemic, as they have close to no means at their disposal other than tickets at the turnstiles and the support of local businesses, most of whom probably have more pressing matters in mind than sponsoring their local side right now.
So is this really about “lifting the spirit of the nation”? The nation itself doesn’t seem so sure, if one is to judge by the findings of a recent Opinium poll for The Observer: 84% of respondents were opposed to the idea of competitive sport making a return; only 7% expressed themselves in favour.
Enthusiasm for a restart is lukewarm within the ‘football family’ itself, especially among the players. The prospect of being quarantined for up to two weeks before being allowed to run out and play in an empty stadium does not seem that enticing to them, to judge by what I have been told privately by quite a few of them over the past couple of weeks.
Yet ever more outlandish proposals have been made to facilitate the return of the Golden Calf and make it more palatable to the paying public when the feast is served. Sky Sports has studied the possibility of using CGI to add virtual crowds to the empty stadiums in which the games would be played. Gordon Taylor, the chief of the Professional Footballers Association, has suggested reducing the length of halves to lighten the players’ workload. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, Wednesday’s briefing by the Premier League to captains and managers of PL teams included advice such as “turn your face away when tackled”. More of these surreal ideas will probably get some airtime in the days and weeks to come.
This is not about football’s contribution to the UK economy, either, which, while it is substantial (£7.6bn per year for the Premier League alone, according to their own 2019 study), represents only a fraction of the value of the creative industries or of tourism.
This is not even about saving the Premier League from financial obliteration. The people who appear to be the keenest to restart as swiftly as the government will allow them to are precisely those within English football who have the means and resources to grit their teeth through the crisis and come out of it relatively unscathed. The PL stands to lose £762m in broadcasting revenue should the 2019-20 season be brought to an end; and by its own admission, the loss would still be close to £350m if football were played again in empty stadiums. It is a big hit, there is no doubt about it; but not as big a hit as the raw numbers suggest.
As TV money is split fairly equally between all 20 Premier League clubs, this represents a shortfall of slightly more than £38m per club. Given that the PL’s total revenue was £4.8bn in 2018-19, and even taking into account the disparity between a Manchester United and a Norwich, this is hardly the kind of loss to make the blood freeze compared to what is happening in other industries; especially when a majority of the team owners, be they an individual, a consortium or even a nation state in the case of Manchester City, belongs to the billionaires’ club (the others are not exactly paupers either). They could easily reach into their pockets to supply the necessary fare to get to the other side, hoping the ferryman’s name was not Charon.
The biggest net winners of a swift restart would not be in Britain at all. They are the Asian online gambling operators, whose size dwarves even their best-known and most successful British equivalents, and through whom an estimated $1 trillion is gambled, lost, won and, especially, laundered every year.
These operators have had a tumultuous time of late, to the extent that the few football leagues which have still operated during the lockdown, in Nicaragua or Belarus, for example, have been the subject of tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars of bets, when they’d normally attract 1,000th of that. Friendly matches between Swedish amateur sides have also been given odds on dozens of Chinese betting platforms, a single one of them generating more than $10m in bets according to an industry insider. The PL might sincerely wish to flush these parasites out of its system, but they would be prime beneficiaries of Project Restart. The same is true of the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A, of course; but that in itself is not a reason to ignore that dimension of the problem, which is almost always set aside if not swept under the carpet.
This is not to deny that the impact of the pandemic on the Premier League will be severe, both short- and long-term; but it will be felt far more acutely in the lower echelons of the game, where many clubs were already struggling to balance their accounts and now face annihilation. Yet all of the talk is of the elite game, as if it were ‘different’ and deserved to be granted special rights, as if it were not an emanation of the game as a whole — something which the global success of the Premier League, an exceptionalism within an exceptionalism, may have made us forget for an instant.
The argument has been made that some of the money salvaged by re-starting the PL season would trickle down the divisions and end up benefiting the whole of English football. This is unlikely, unless the Premier League had as yet unannounced plans to share far more of its income during that period than it customarily does: the money it currently distributes mostly goes to clubs that have recently vacated the top division, in the form of parachute payments, not to the grassroots organisations — despite, it must be added, the excellent work that many clubs do within their communities on a day-to-day basis, which makes the current situation all the more galling.
Nothing prevents the Premier League from resuming playing later in the year, even if it means truncating or re-thinking the calendar of the 2020-21 campaign. The absurd setting of time-specific targets in the face of fluctuating circumstances — “we must re-start by 12 June and have finished by the end of July” is the latest — represents an act of self-hamstringing for which I’ve yet to hear a reasonable justification.
Meanwhile, the Premier League’s clubs are still bickering between themselves, about the use of neutral venues, with at least six clubs, perhaps as many as eight, opposed to playing away from their home grounds as recommended by health and security experts.
Is Project Restart even about sport? Not really, as far as ‘sport’ as we thought we knew it is concerned. Heaven knows in what physical state the players will be if and when they’re asked to perform again after the longest lay-off of their careers, and how their bodies will cope with a hastened return to action, especially if the nine rounds to play are crammed within a short period in order to finish the season before the end of July.
Or let’s suppose that Liverpool wrap up the title that is their due in a couple of games, then, quite reasonably, decide that they should protect their main playing assets and thereby ‘betray’ some relegation-threatened sides by fielding a reserve team against one of their direct rivals? Let’s suppose… let’s stop there. None of this makes any sense.
The problem is that the Premier League is used to asking an enchanted mirror: “Am I the fairest league of them all?”, and to hearing back: “Of course you are.” And now, it’s as if it had gone through it and turned into the Mad Hatter. It cannot countenance that its relevance to Covid-hit England could be questioned, as it contradicts everything it holds true.
What it is about is government pressure, which was exerted from the word ‘go’, when the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, first said there was “no reason” to consider directing all UK sporting events to be played behind closed doors, then liaised with the Premier League “with a view to getting football up and running as soon as possible” (his own words) “in order to support the whole football community”. Some PL figures admit privately that they would be relieved if the matter was taken out their own hands, and the health or police authorities forced them to reconsider Project Restart.
What it is about is the fear of being left behind. The Germans — whose Bundesliga is well-placed to become a genuine global challenger to the Premier League — are getting ready for a 16 May restart after being given a conditional green light by their federal government. Portugal, which has managed the pandemic even better than the Germans, is on the way back too, and, while France and the Netherlands have pulled the plug on the current season, Spain and Italy are pushing on with their own Project Restarts, albeit far less convincingly.
It is as if the Premier League cannot stand the idea of watching the train leave the station, waving goodbye from the edge of the platform.