DUBAI: During a global health crisis, 22 men kicking, or not kicking, a football for 90 minutes really shouldn’t matter. And yet somehow it seems that it does, even if not exactly in the way that the beautiful game’s most passionate fans believe.
As the spread of the coronavirus continues to prompt panic around the world, the scheduling of football matches and other sporting events have inadvertently become a barometer of just how uncertain the times we are living in are.
On Tuesday, UEFA announced that Euro 2020 would now be played in the summer of 2021, by far the most significant delay in the sporting calendar to be announced since Covid-19 broke across the globe.
“We are at the helm of a sport that vast numbers of people live and breathe, that has been laid low by this invisible and fast-moving opponent,” said UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, as Euro 2020 was officially moved to June 11 of next year.
“It is at times like these that the football community needs to show responsibility, unity, solidarity and altruism.”
Having dragged their feet over the announcement of any suspensions to club or international competitions, UEFA has now taken a wholly logical decision that should in theory allow the domestic football leagues across its member states to be completed this summer, without the specter of Euro 2020. Whether that will happen now remains to be seen, but at least a window of opportunity will be kept open for several months longer.
Tellingly, for thousands and even millions of people, the spread of the virus has been viewed through the prism of football.
Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, La Liga in Spain and the French Ligue 1 had all at various times insisted that matches would continue behind doors before the rising number of coronavirus cases made it impossible. The English Premier League was the last of the big European leagues to take that step, while UEFA itself decided last week that the Champions League and Europa League competitions would also be suspended indefinitely.
While football in itself, it hardly needs saying, remains immaterial during a pandemic, it is remarkable how for many it remained central to how they processed the rapidly deteriorating situation.
Before the outbreak had significantly spread around the globe, and as it peaked in China and countries like Iran and South Korea in mid-February, football fans in Europe were more concerned about how any potential outbreak would affect their respective teams than harboring any personal fears about a debilitating and often fatal disease.
As recently as last week, thousands of Paris Saint-Germain supporters congregated outside the Parc de Princes stadium as their team beat Borussia Dortmund inside it, defeating the purpose of banning large crowds from convening at football matches.
Elsewhere, not surprisingly, many Premier League fans took great joy taunting Liverpool fans that their efforts to win a first title in 30 years may be in vain should the season be declared null and void. Meanwhile, supporters of Jurgen Klopp’s team, as well as fans of promotion-seeking Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion, hoped that the season would carry on until their targets had been achieved.
Yet again, it was only after a number of high profile players and coaches started testing positive for Covid-19 that the enormity of what was taking place seemed to hit home.
A trickle quickly became a deluge.
The first player to test positive in Italy was Juventus defender Daniele Rugani. Shortly afterwards, three Leicester City players were isolated for showing symptoms of the virus. The turning point arrived when Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta became another victim.
At that point football tribalism and club-centric takes on the disease began to recede, though by no means disappear.
Crucially, the fact that on the same day it was due to make a decision, the NBA called time on the US basketball season, seemed to force the hand of the Premier League.
The situation in the Middle East may have lagged behind China, certain Asian countries and Europe, but it was only a matter of time that football and other sports would feel the impact of the pandemic. While certain one-off events and tournaments, from horse racing to golf, were called off, domestic football leagues like the Saudi Professional League and the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League soldiered on, eventually behind closed doors. Last weekend, however, common sense prevailed and the leagues were suspended.
Tuesday’s decision by UEFA, belated as it was, has brought some much-needed perspective to the situation, although it still leaves many questions unanswered.
The European football leagues, the world’s most popular, will now have a chance to conclude their season by June 30, if at all possible. However, there is no guarantee the spread of the coronavirus will have receded sufficiently in the coming months. Ultimately, a decision that the football season be cancelled, and all the logistical nightmares that brings with it, might still have to be taken.
Above all, the elephant in the room remains the Tokyo Olympics set to start in July. As of yesterday, assurances were made that it would go ahead, though that could change within weeks, days or even hours. Unlike with Euro 2020, set to take place across several nations, suspension of the Olympics would prove a logistical and financial disaster for Tokyo.
But there could be little choice in the matter. Sport may be, as many have said, the most important of life’s unimportant things. But it’s not that important. Even football’s most rabid fans are quickly realizing that.