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Football needs to watch out, or risk descending into a coronavirus-induced civil war

Football needs to watch out, or risk descending into a coronavirus-induced civil war
Football can be the most toxically tribal of sports, even at the best of times. But as we enter a sporting landscape decimated by the coronavirus, that characteristic has the potential to become even more self-destructive.

As with sport as a whole, football has not been immune from the Covid-19 chaos.

Leagues are on hold around the world and there is lingering uncertainty over when (and how) they will resume.

At present, the Italian Serie A is on pause until April 3 – although the consensus is that the break will extend far beyond that, given that the country remains the European epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Elsewhere, the English FA announced on Thursday that the Premier League and other professional tiers would remain suspended until April 30 at the earliest.

FA prolong English football suspension until April 30, extend Premier League 2019/20 season indefinitely 

Similar extensions will surely follow in major leagues such as the German Bundesliga and La Liga in Spain, while football in France remains suspended indefinitely.

UEFA chief Alexander Ceferin summed up the mood this week after the decision to postpone Euro 2020 until the summer of 2021, describing the situation as “the biggest crisis football has faced in history.”

Also on rt.com 'We made the biggest sacrifice': UEFA president Ceferin says 'health number one priority' after Euro 2020 postponement

UEFA’s decision was a common sense one, arising from the need to free up the calendar and allow domestic leagues to be played to completion.

It has also stressed that the overriding priority must be the health of the fans, players and others that work in the game.

So far, so sensible.  

But look a little closer amid the coronavirus carnage, and you will see that football's tribal toxicity is still there, bubbling under the surface.

The biggest manifestation of that has been the debate over what would happen should leagues not be played to a conclusion, or what truncated versions of them would look like.

UEFA’s decision hands domestic leagues some much-needed breathing space with their fixtures list, but no one really knows quite how far Europe is into the coronavirus crisis, or how long its effects will linger.

China has taken more than three months to gingerly emerge from the crisis and see a major reduction in cases; Europe, in comparison, appears in the early throes of the outbreak.

In suspending its leagues, the Italian Football Federation suggested that the current season may not be finished at all.

The English Premier League has supposedly looked at various contingency plans, including playing all 92 remaining games behind closed doors and at neutral venues.

But even that may not be feasible if Europe fails to combat Covid-19 in the way China has.

Karren Brady, the vice-chairman of West Ham United, suggested that the current season should be declared null and void.

That would mean a total reset in which her club – who are outside the relegation zone on goal difference – live to fight another Premier League day, while Liverpool – 25 points clear at the top of the table – would miss out on a first league title in 30 years.

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Brady was slaughtered for the suggestion and branded venal and opportunistic for daring even to mention the prospect, but she wasn’t the only one doing so.

If a team's self-interest lies down one particular avenue, it may take a lot of effort for them not to pursue it.  

Even if the league isn’t voided outright but ends up being decided based on current standings or through a complex model to determine how the remaining games will play out (yes, that has also been mooted), there will inevitably be howls of injustice and grievances galore.

The relegated clubs will claim they could have scrapped for survival; the teams missing out on Champions League places will fume they’ve been hard done by.

And then there are the teams deprived of promotion to the top-tier promised lands in their respective countries.

The lawyers would have a field day as litigation after litigation is filed.   

There would be inherent uncertainty in any model or method that decides the league other than by playing all the remaining games, hence the desperation to get the seasons played to their entirety.     

But at present, we simply don’t know how far and how deep the current crisis will go. As the suspensions drag on, so does the uncertainty over what that means for the leagues. 

It may seem like a far-fetched scenario that seasons are never completed, but then so did a global pandemic laying waste to entire sporting calendars up until just a few weeks ago.

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And then there is the no less significant matter of the financial cost that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to bear.

UEFA chief Ceferin has been left to contemplate the monetary damage of delaying the organization's flagship international tournament, which he estimated would run into “hundreds of millions of euros.”

That scenario is writ large across the whole of football and not least in Europe, where the game’s biggest bucks are made.

The conclusion of the Champions League is in jeopardy, the costs of which could be gargantuan.  

Domestically, the English Premier League rakes in £3 billion a year from TV rights and will be desperate for the season to be concluded, or risk losing out on a purported £750 million.

That's a substantial sum, even for the footballing bourgeoisie.

The financial strain is further being felt as clubs are deprived of gate receipts lower down the football food chain.

Fears surrounding the future of non-league Barnet, imperiled as a result of pandemic, are being echoed elsewhere.

Clubs already walking the financial tightrope could be tipped over the edge and out of existence.

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Rightly or wrongly, that scenario will see calls for richer clubs higher up the pecking order to step in and help their poorer relatives in an act of footballing fraternity.

Football’s haves and have nots will be painfully laid bare for all to see. 

Jonas Baer-Hoffman, the general secretary of the world players’ union, Fifpro, said as much this week when he warned of "a real, consistent economic crisis in the industry."

"Not just the players but other people employed through professional football – our industry employs hundreds of thousands. There is the potential for it to turn ugly very quickly…” Baer-Hoffman cautioned.

"We know how football clubs’ budgets are managed. They're always right at the line or above it in terms of liquidity.

"If we don't respond quickly in terms of stabilizing the cash flow we could see mass redundancies and mass lay-offs of players and other staff within weeks.”

It’s not just a case of deciding titles and trophies in the right way, but also ensuring that clubs’ and livelihoods make it into the post-coronavirus world.

It may not be a literal matter of life and death, but it is a metaphorical one for many in the game.

Positive signs have been there. UEFA showed with their Euro 2020 step that collective interest can trump narrow self-interest.

Russia, which prior to that decision had offered to share more of the burden as a Euro 2020 host nation (so far) less affected by the pandemic, also demonstrated a willingness to lend a hand.  

'Ready to lend a hand': Russia willing to host more games at Euro 2020 as coronavirus pandemic threatens tournament 

FIFA likewise bit the bullet and acknowledged that their own plans for an expanded Club World Cup would have to be sacrificed next year.       

But elsewhere, we have seen the signs that football can still be beset with venal self-interest and class strife. 

As we grapple with the crisis of a lifetime, that is exactly what the game needs to steer away from.

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