Football is finally back, and not too soon because the charm of putting a match on Fifa without selecting sides and watching the AI go at it was wearing thin.
The German Bundesliga started on Saturday but it stands alone in its bold initiative, with other leagues already taking drastic measures of calling the entire season off. The Belgium Pro League was the first to go, calling off their season and declaring Club Brugge, the team leading by 15 points, champions in what was a decision so difficult that it took a month to ratify. In Holland, where the two top sides Ajax and AZ were separated only by goal difference, the league was cancelled but there was no champion.
The French League followed suit, deciding the league standings on a point per game basis and declaring PSG champions in the process. But already the decision has been met with derision, as Lyon, a perennial Champions league participant, who sit 7th but within reach of a champions league spot, have threatened to sue given the massive financial implications of not participating in Europe’s elite competition next season.
And that is the reality of the discussion surrounding resumption of football elsewhere, while player safety appears to be of paramount importance on the surface, finances seem to be the driving factor behind calls for leagues to restart. The English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A are all heavily televised worldwide and TV money has already been paid up for the season. In the Premier League, broadcasting income alone for the league and its members amounts to close to £1 billion and with a quarter of the season to play with no gate receipts, having to return much of that amount will be a huge hit for the involved teams to take, which explains why calls for resumption are unanimous.
And it is not just the finances, but also the fact that so much is up for grabs in each of these leagues in terms of league positions. In Spain, at the top, giants Barcelona and Real Madrid are separated by only 2 points whilst in Italy, darling underdogs Lazio trail Juventus by only 1 point. Champions league places and promotion and relegation spots are similarly well contested.
Even in England, while Liverpool will definitely not let this one slip, the race for European spots and relegation is wide open, whereas Leeds United do not wish to be denied their fabled return to the English top flight.
Return dates have been set to June 12th and 13th for each of these leagues to resume, with the presumption that matches might have to be played on almost a daily basis to be able to conclude the league in a reasonable enough time frame so as to not impact the following season. And of course, multiple testing protocols and increased safety measures are a prerequisite for all teams that play, even if it is behind closed doors.
But even if football does resume to some extent, it won’t be the same; the biggest shock will be the absence of fans and the atmosphere they generate. The Juventus vs Inter game played out behind closed doors just before the lockdown was bizarre, with players clearly audible and goals met with chilling silence. It is just not how the game should be played and the players and commentators involved were all more than keen to point this out.
Moreover, with players tasked with keeping fit on their own and games to be played with harrowing frequency, lower fitness levels and resultantly can be expected with a lower intensity in games as well. This naturally also means players risk injuries and a lot of clubs might lose some key players, especially if matches are played on a day to day basis.
And if football was unpredictable before, there will be absolute pandemonium in terms of results, with the home factor largely neutralised, fitness overtaking skill, lots of injuries and matches being played with little time for preparation and tactical innovations. That in itself is as good a reason as any to tune in, assuming any motivation was needed in the first place.
There is obviously nothing more important than the safety of the players and staff and perhaps the safest thing to do would be to call off football until the pandemic is under control, but for a moment it’s okay to want to forget all that.