Football may never be the same again

Published on Mar 30, 2020 12:53 AM IST
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ByBhargab Sarmah

NEW DELHI: “I want to see the trophy go through the Shankly gates!” US-based British comedian John Oliver screamed and gesticulated in the latest episode of his late-night talk show, shot in New York without a studio audience and broadcast earlier this month.

Oliver was describing, on a lighter note, his frustrations as a Liverpool fan. Liverpool supporters have been waiting since 1990 to see the club win the league again – only for the much-awaited coronation to be halted by the fast-accelerating coronavirus pandemic.

Leading by 25 points when the season was suspended, the Reds were a maximum of two wins away from securing their first league title in 30 years.

Hope in history

But the Covid-19 outbreak means football remains a mere afterthought now. The Merseyside club though can take heart from the last time football in England resumed after being brought to a grinding halt by a global crisis.

In 1946-47, the first post-World War 2 English top-flight season after the league was suspended in 1939, Liverpool went on to win the title after a gap of 24 years.

Just like in the second World War, the pandemic has halted sporting events in many parts of the world. Football has been badly hit, nowhere more so than in Europe. While many countries continued with their domestic leagues during World War 2 that is not the case this time.

As things stand, games are taking place as scheduled only in the Belarusian Premier League. The pandemic’s escalation in Europe in recent weeks means it is unlikely the money-rich domestic leagues or continental competitions will be resuming any time soon.

During World War 2, football in England was restricted to regional divisions under the Wartime League, as many footballers were conscripted and authorities tried to reduce public gatherings for fear of being targeted by aerial attacks.

Germany and Italy continued leagues until the Allied forces seized their territory. Unlike the World War 2 years, however, European football has much more to lose this time around.

A financial behemoth

Over the past two decades, spurred by a global mass media boom, Europe’s football industry has become a financial behemoth. An explosive surge in broadcast deals, player transfers, kit deals and gate receipts have turned it into a multi-billion industry.

But as the sport has found out in recent weeks, the financial steroids it has been running on are now struggling to safeguard it in the midst of a global pandemic. It is being estimated that Europe’s top five leagues --- La Liga, Premiership, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 --- stand to lose a consolidated $4.5 billion or more if the current season is voided. Which it will be if football can’t resume by end-June, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has said.

UEFA is already said to be contemplating lifting financial fair play regulations meant to prevent clubs from spending above their means.

In many countries, there is talk of job cuts. In Germany, Bayern Munich’s multi-millionaire players are taking a 20% pay-cut. Players at Bundesliga clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Schalke too are waiving part of their salaries. In Scotland, top-tier club Hearts have asked players to accept a 50% salary cut.

‘Transfer fees will drop’

Many fear the football landscape in Europe will be permanently altered by the time the professional sport resumes. “I can’t imagine €100m transfers in the near future,” former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness recently told German football magazine Kicker.

“Transfer fees will drop, the amounts will not recover to the previous level in the next two or three years. There will very likely be a new football world.”

Bundesliga clubs are already anticipating a liquidity crunch in the immediate future over fears that broadcast payments may remain on hold. According to a Bloomberg report, the league is seeking to raise over $330 million to deal with potential the cash flow crisis.

In England, lower league clubs are fearing bankruptcy. Bernard Caiazzo, St Etienne board member and president of the group which represents top French clubs in Ligue 1 club, recently warned that half of the country’s professional clubs could go bust.

Call for reforms

If anything, the current crisis has exposed the fragility of European football’s financial brawn. It has led to a change in tone even at Fifa with president Gianni Infantino speaking of a less cluttered annual calendar.

“We can perhaps reform world football by taking a step back. With different formats. Fewer tournaments, but more interesting. Maybe fewer teams, but more balanced. Fewer games, to protect the health of the players, but more competitive. It’s not science fiction, let’s talk about it,” Infantino said recently.

What Infantino means when he says ‘fewer tournaments’ could be different from how the rest of the world interprets it. However, Infantino’s comments are significant because he has pushed for an expanded 24-team FIFA Club World Cup, much to the chagrin of UEFA and Europe’s elite clubs.

The new version of that inter-club tournament, which was to be held in 2021, has been put on hold following the postponement of the European Championship and Copa America to the summer of that year. It is not yet known where the tournament will fit in the calendar given how cluttered it will be till the 2022 World Cup, which itself will cause some disruption to many domestic leagues across Europe, being held in November-December.

One thing that is clear is that the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the foundations of the football industry in Europe. It is certain that there will be repercussions of the current lull. How, nobody can be sure.

But the blowback is likely to cause bankruptcy at a few smaller clubs, with many lower league clubs across Europe likely to be impacted. There are likely to be significant job cuts, pay cuts and austerity measures undertaken by many clubs.

Even Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool are expected to lose millions but are unlikely to face the kind of existential threat that many lower league clubs will.

Chance for reforms

This could also be an opportunity for many countries and for UEFA to reform the game, reduce the gulf between the haves and the have-nots and reverse the long-term implications of the lockdown.

If a multi-billion pound Premier League broadcast deal, for instance, has no impact on the health of lower league clubs, fails to prevent a few Bury FCs from going bust, is it really helping the sport in the long run? Because without a League Two (English fourth tier), there will be no Premier League.

As countries around the world deal with the pandemic, perhaps Europe’s football bosses can use their time in isolation to draw up measures to protect the weaker stakeholders of the game.

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