By Tony Attwood
There are signs that football journalists, and indeed their employers, the newspapers, radio and TV stations, are getting edgy. In the last couple of days, for example, the Guardian has published an article headlined “Premier League critics should recognise football cannot wait forever” and then Gary Neville accused Premier League of “failing to give a lead on return to action.”
So what is making them suddenly rather edgy? Why are they suddenly writing about “sporting integrity” – a phrase and indeed a concept that has never worried them before?
The answer to these questions is probably similar to the answer to the questions about why the media has not reported just about the biggest financial scandal yet to involve Fifa in which Israeli bank, “Bank Hapoalim” has been fined $904m in a case involving US clients’ tax evasion, and Fifa. Or the fact that we are getting close to the impeachment of the Swiss attorney general of the way he is letting Fifa wriggle out of yet more legal proceedings.
The fact is the media has an agenda and it is directed by agreement with the Premier League which controls the media’s access to matches. Want a seat in the Press Section, want to be in the press conference where the manager is interviewed? Make sure you only ask the right questions – or that you have quite a few other journalists backing you up.
And this is important because behind the questions can be all sorts of key issues that are never debated, such as the competence of the people running the game or the way in which PGMO operates behind closed doors (funny we never hear that phrase in relation to the PGMO yet it is the biggest “closed doors” operation in the whole of football – probably the whole of the UK.
What we actually needed were people with the ability to think ahead as in, “I know this is unlikely, but what would we do if there was a major issue in the country that stopped a lot of games being played – would we abandon the season, finish it overseas, play it next season, take the final table and work it out on the basis of points per game thus far… Let’s create a basic set of rules which will be our fall-back position unless everyone agrees something else.
To have no basic agreement on what to do if the whole thing can’t be played out, seems odd to the point of gross incompetence. Not least because it would have been a hell of a lot easier to implement a previously existing agreement than make one up at the moment we are in the midst of it.
The fact is, changing the rules after you have started, is never a good idea. Change the rules before you start, and everyone knows how it is going to go. So, increase the number of points per win from two to three in order to get more goals – that’s discussed for three years and then organised before the season begins. Change the offside rule from three, to two, to one player between the attacking player and the goal, and we know where we are going over a series of seasons.
Trial matches can be played out before the new season starts, everyone knows when it is happening, and off we go.
(Incidentally none of those changes worked in the longer term. The change to three points for a win didn’t increase the number of wins or make football more exciting. The change in the offside rule did have an impact, but only for a few years. But at least they did it in a timely way).
So what would have been impressive would have been for the League or Uefa to agree that if matches are stopped for any reason, and can’t be completed within two weeks of the planned end of the season, then …
It could be that the season would be abandoned, or the league as it was would count as the final table, or clubs would be ranked by points per game played or…
What makes the failure to have such an agreement unacceptable is that the issue has actually come up three times before. In 1914 when war was declared the League decided to carry on in England. The press waged a war on the decision and tried to get it reversed, but the 1914/15 season was played, after which we went over to wartime leagues. In 1919 the flu pandemic broke out; we carried on regardless.
In 1939 three games were played before war was declared, and at that point the League was abandoned and regional leagues and cups set up.
If God help us, a war broke out this time, we’d probably still be arguing about what should happen, as the first nuclear bombs wiped out the whole of civilisation.
Meanwhile it is only now – this far into the pandemic – that the police and the Sports Ground Safety Authority have decided that it is unfeasible for every Premier League team to be able to host games. Of course, we were guessing this would be the case, which is why we were publicising the notion that the whole of the Premier League could be moved to Cyprus for the remaining games to be played out. Sadly it seems the League felt that moving overseas would “give out the wrong message”, whatever that meant so they dropped the idea. In Germany, a lot of fans’ groups don’t like the idea of ghost games.
What is strange is that the people who pay for Premier League football to be as it is (Sky and BT Sprout to be precise) never bothered to ask about an Armageddon clause. and it is interesting that in the Netherlands the notion of pulling the plug on this season has not really excited many people. Presumably as the TV deal for Dutch games is not that lucrative.
In France the broadcasting deal is important, but next season’s new deal is the most important of all, so the abandonment of this season will go through, although there is a legal challenge. After all, we knew PSG would win the league before the season started.
PSG are 12 points clear with a game in hand and a goal difference 39 better than Marseilles. Lille might just have made it to third and the champions league, but Nice had precious little chance of breaking into the European positions. Amiens have four points fewer and a worse GD than Nimes and so seem likely to go down but they and Lille are talking to their lawyers.
But here’s a thought – this isn’t just about seeing virus deaths declining, it is about eliminating the virus so it doesn’t spring up again. And how long will that take?
Many of us would like our leaders to create countries in which they think about the future in terms of climate change and not having wars. But if the football organisations can’t even think that there might be a pandemic and have rules agreed in advance, there ain’t much chance of getting the bigger deal.
Maybe when BT Sprout’s presenters laughed at the Emirates Cup, saying they couldn’t work out the maths for who was top of the four team table with clubs getting three points for a win and one for each goal, we should have realised. Having this bunch of dodos in charge of football (as the Sprout and Sky effectively are) is not very sensible.
Couldn’t we find someone slightly more educated?
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