Exactly how are we going to start football again?

By Christophe Jost

As I explained in my previous article on The Last Pandemic, the end of the pandemic was just the beginning of a new set of problems.  Those who survived had a whole new set of issues to face.

As different countries approach a stage in which the curve representing the number of cases flattens out the virus causing the illnesses does not go away.  The curve flattens, it does not ebb.

The same will be true this time.  The pandemic is here to stay with us around two years, according to the media and the view of the experts – and it will survive across three continents.  So the new normal is not a new normal, it is a ‘new-post-Covid-19-peak-normal’, which is not at all the same thing.

Authorities will try as hard as possible to keep things stable, most particularly to ensure that we do not have another wave of virus illnesses and deaths happening.

The health infrastructure has been going through harrowing times, especially regarding personnel: nurses, doctors, specialists, all the people necessary to run any hospital or elderly people’s home.
They cannot operate at 120% capacity for much longer, or we will have to start again with another wave of viral infections.

So to avoid this social distancing will be the norm and one issue has so far not been too widely examined, that of wholesale testing.

For the problem is that people can be positive for the virus but asymptomatic, and sometimes not even get sick, which raises a whole set of issues that need be resolved.

In effect we will not be able to get our old lives back without large scale testing. If we are to go back to work, to start going out (in the sense of stepping out of the door, rather than partying or going to mass events such as football matches…), we have to know where we stand.

Did I get the virus but don’t know it? Did the people I am meeting get it?   So before we open the football grounds again mass testing will have to be available, and at first it will be used progressively to lift some restrictions.

Now, one can imagine that there may also be some travel restrictions staying in place. Talk of a Covid-19 passport exists – if you’ve had it, you are not deemed ‘dangerous’, so you may have greater freedom of movement. Kind of like a vaccine book in reverse. This element may spell doom for international football organised the way it was until now, at least for fans.

Again this all is based on testing. One can assume that the testing technology will make strides and be able to deliver a verdict faster and cheaper than is the case now. But still, it will need a whole logistics supply-chain to be set-up from purchasing, to delivering the test, to delivering secure certificates accepted across a country or across countries.

While the incompetence of the football bodies in England is in great display, as well as the lack of solidarity among PL clubs and the whacky finances of many of them, things are happening in Europe.

In France, the Ligue 1 has decided that the 2020-2021 season will start on August 23 (22nd for the 2nd division). Now, my personal opinion is that this is wishful thinking. But then again, the US president does the same, so I guess he inspires others.

In Germany, and please remember they are visibly, so far, handling the pandemic better, work has started in the higher levels of the DFL and the Bundesliga to organise ‘post-Covid-19-peak’ football. Probably another show of German efficiency. They have accepted the fact that the day games restart, it will be without spectators, call them “ghost games,” with social distancing the prime requirement.

So the logic is that players will need to keep self quarantine. I imagine that will apply to support staff as well.  They’ll all need to be tested before each game.

Now on this issue, they compute that it will require 20,000 tests or so to finish the 2019-2020 season, at a time when those tests are in short supply and there is a public health interest in them being used on other people – but this is another issue.

Commentators talk of a lifestyle equivalent to the period before a World Cup. A camp, the team isolated from the rest of the world, travelling from hotel to stadium in coaches and then back, no contact with outsiders.

I wonder as well how long players can sustain living in such a bubble…even if it would be legal from a work contract point of view.

I mean, does it mean the players’ families will be isolated as well? Is it legal? Sure, some of them are very well paid, but as we have seen, confinment comes with all sorts. If a player refuses this condition, is he in breach of his contract, even if there is no mention of this condition in his contract?

Anyway, let’s look at the games themselves.

Officials have actually computed the number of people allowed for each ghost game. German precision strikes again!   Here it is :

On, and around the field

4 referees, 22 players on field, 18 players on the bench, 16 supporting staff, 4 ball boys, 2 greenkeepers, 3 Anti-doping specialists, 5 Photographers, 6 paramedics, 10 Stewards, 36 TV staff

In the stands

20 stewards, 6 paramedics, 2 firefighters, 4 policemen, 5 technical staff, 8 away team delegates, 8 home team delegates, 2 referee staff, 30 journalists, 28 TV Staff

… which makes a total of 239 people.

So they have a plan. They are working on it. It is far from perfect, but they are collectively working to make it more realistic and save their season, as well as make sure the next one happens.

The thing is that leagues need to a) finish the season so they get some revenue b) be able to start next season and all that that entails in a public health context in which each will have to adapt to its country’s legislation, the situation on the post-peak curve, and other such considerations.

Reading how they plan to restart the Bundesliga, one just wonders if this can be adapted to a European competition.  I’m doubtful, for the situation will be fluid for the next years, so we need to be ready for some new schemes even if they seem hair-brained.

But still, one issue keeps nagging me. Broadcasters are bleeding money. Advertisers as well.  Imagine football restarts, with ghost games. Are the broadcasters going to be in a position to pay all these millions when their finances are so badly hit? Is this not going to be an effort too far?

We shall see.  If nothing else, it will be interesting.