What happened to football in 2020 – and what’s next? | News on the coronavirus pandemic

Empty football stadiums resonate with their history, says Uruguayan historian and football fanatic Eduardo Galeano: “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less silent than private stands for spectators, ”he writes.

His maxim has been tested several times around the world this year, as football has come under fire from the pandemic.

“COVID has massively affected all aspects of football; from the way the game is played, from the way it is viewed – without fans, or with few numbers – to the economics of the game, ”journalist and author James Montague told Al Jazeera.

As COVID-19 spread rapidly in early 2020, nearly all professional leagues around the world have been suspended.

Fans accustomed to organizing their lives around the rhythm and regular rituals of football matches had the opportunity to replay old matches or watch players like FC Slutsk take on FC Smolevichi-Sti in the Belarusian Super League, the only European league to play at the end of March.

Euro 2020 – with its format particularly favorable to the pandemic of 12 host cities across the continent – has been postponed to 2021, as has the Copa America.

Empty seats are seen in the stands ahead of the German Premier League Bundesliga soccer match in Dortmund, western Germany [Focke Strangmann/AFP]

“It’s been a big x-ray and it’s been a big wake-up call,” said sports editor, broadcaster and academic David Goldblatt.

“On the one hand, [it’s made clear] the deep and profound importance of football to untold numbers of people and its dependence as a spectacle and social phenomenon on a real human crowd, interacting with the thing on the pitch, ”he told Al Jazeera.

“And then of course, it revealed all the craziness of the business model, at the individual club level and in the game as a whole.

FIFA estimates COVID-19 will likely cost football $ 14 billion this year – about a third of its value. This posed an existential threat to many clubs, often already in debt and mismanaged amid wider inequalities.

Even some of the richest clubs in the world have deferred salaries and payments, taken out huge loans, asked players to take salary cuts and staff on leave or fired – Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil even offered to save the club’s mascot Gunnersaurus redundancy.

Inside World Football chief correspondent Andrew Warshaw told Al Jazeera that smaller clubs that depend on the day’s income have suffered the most. Many clubs and entire leagues facing the prospect of collapse have been forced to ask for bailouts.

“The biggest problem is really in the lower leagues and non-league football, because those clubs even struggle to exist. They don’t have the television revenues to fall back on, ”he said.

Caracas Olympic Stadium is seen with empty stands due to the coronavirus pandemic, taken before the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup closed-door soccer match between Venezuela and Chile [File: Edilzon Gamez/AFP]

Empty supports

Reservations about the safety and wisdom of playing during a pandemic have generally been dismissed by the blunt truth that the sport could not afford to forgo the colossal in-game streaming revenues.

While some countries have canceled their seasons, many leagues and competitions returned in May or June to play in empty stadiums – under strict testing and distancing protocols.

Liverpool earned their first league victory in 30 years playing on empty ground. Continental club competitions have returned in abbreviated formats – Bayern Munich won a Champions League which took place over a few weeks in August.

Fanless matches – what the Germans call “Geisterspiele” (or ghost games) – took place in strange soundscapes; whether it be by the screams of the players made audible amid an ambient hum of absent fans or by the artificial crowd noises added by the broadcasters who rocked with empty seating plans and often failed to calculate with the mess of the real ones matches.

Montague says the tensions between the idea of ​​football clubs as institutions rooted in local communities and their status as global brands have been brought to the fore even more sharply this year – and the more restrictions are in place, the more threat to fan culture is great.

“At the start of the pandemic, I thought: it’s terrible to see that the fans aren’t there, but it also shows how important the fans are – not only for the atmosphere, but also for the business model of the football, ”Montague said.

“But as you go along, you start to see how people who run clubs, who run football organizations see the need to exploit this window of opportunity to try and push forward reforms that never would have been possible before.

Some clubs and officials – including Real Madrid president Florentino Perez – seemed increasingly determined to push for an elite separatist European super league during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, English Premier League clubs dismissed the controversy in October Project overview plan devised by Manchester United and Liverpool, which had offered more revenue and a financial bailout for lower league clubs in return for the concentration of power among the English footballing elite.

Play on

The pandemic has often produced erratic football matches and wild score lines, as well as more penalties and goals in many leagues.

Aston Villa beat defending champions Liverpool 8-2, Bayern Munich humiliated Barcelona by the same score in the Champions League quarter-finals – leading to a unhappy Lionel Messi. Arsenal couldn’t win a league game for nearly two months.

“I think the fact that the fans weren’t able to attend home games and the lack of pressure to have to play in front of a crowded crowd, actually led to smooth football in most clubs, and that’s why you’re getting these weird, weird results every two weeks, ”Warshaw said.

Research by the Institute for Labor Economics found that in many leagues the home advantage prevailed but was often less pronounced in empty stadiums and that referees awarded fewer yellow cards to away teams. .

Many players have tested positive for COVID-19 – including Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mohamed Salah – and picked up injuries in the middle of a crowded fixture list.

Swedish AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic [File: Andreas Solaro/AFP]

“[Footballers] has played a lot before COVID, but having to squeeze all of these games in such a short period of time is bound to impact the physical and mental well-being of players, ”Warshaw said.

Women’s football has also taken a huge hit, with many leagues canceled in 2020. In a report on COVID-19 released in November, the global players’ union Fifpro found that in 26% of the countries surveyed, women’s clubs did not ‘were not included in the return to reading protocols.

Fifpro general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said that wage cuts, job losses and lack of support meant that there was “a real danger that progress towards gender equality in the parts of world football are being delayed for years ”.

Meanwhile, debates over changing the offside and handball rules, as well as the application of the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology system, have become noticeably more acrimonious this year, Montague said.

“Having more people watching in front of televisions and screens makes this problem a little worse, I think,” he said.

There have been heartwarming football stories this year; Legend of Japanese football “King Kazu”Alias ​​Kazuyoshi Miura, 53, set a new record in September by becoming the oldest starter in the history of the country’s elite division. Celtic player Ryan Christie was overcome with emotion in an interview after Scotland qualified for their first major since 1998.

And while athlete activism There is nothing new, the footballers of 2020 have spoken more and more on political, social and environmental issues. “It’s at a truly unprecedented scale, depth and reach,” Goldblatt said.

Footballers have joined FIFA and World Health Organization campaign against domestic violence during confinements. Many players have repeatedly demonstrated support for the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement.

Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has become a powerful force for social activism in the UK against hunger – twice forcing the UK government to back down and reverse its policy on free school meals – as well as to promote reading and literacy.

Barcelona Antoine Griezmann severed ties with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei over his alleged role in monitoring the persecuted Uyghur Muslim minority.

But of course, it was also a year of deep loss in the world of football.

Iraqi football legend Ahmad Radhi | died after contracting COVID-19.

In 2020, the world also mourned the death of the legendary Italian striker Paolo rossi, ex-Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier, England 1966 World Cup winners Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles, and the great Argentinian Diego Maradona.

Diego Maradona, then Argentina coach, greets supporters ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-final Argentina vs Germany in Cape Town, South Africa [File: Javier Soriano/AFP]

Look ahead

Fans started returning to many stadiums across the globe in the last few months of the year until the spike in infections and mutant strains again emptied many stalls in December.

“[COVID-19’s] the human cost – physically, mentally and financially – will persist long after vaccines are deployed around the world, ”Warshaw said.

Meanwhile, other trends are on the horizon.

“A big story of 2021 will also be Brexit, and how that will affect the Premier League,” Montague said, “and what an advantage it is going to be for other big clubs in Europe who can profit from the chaos.”

From January 1, 2021, all foreign players in the UK will be subject to a points-based threshold, and UK clubs will no longer be able to sign foreign players under the age of 18.

Goldblatt, meanwhile, stressed that the pandemic is linked to environmental factors and the climate crisis, which will have increasingly serious implications for football and which the sport must face now.

His research revealed that stadiums at 23 of the 92 clubs in the English Football League will experience partial or full flooding by 2050.

“Grimsby Town had better start water polo as soon as possible,” he said.

Goldblatt says football – as a sport of comebacks, shock wins and deep cultural and political significance – generates collective hope and can play a vital role in climate activism.

“Maybe I’m too old-fashioned, but hope is a precious commodity. I don’t experience it in most of my life, spiritually or politically. But I do it in football.

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