In Germany yesterday they played, in England tomorrow they will talk about playing - again. If it is debatable that the football culture of a country reflects the wider national culture, it is clearly in this case reflecting a difference between how they are dealing with Covid-19 in both nations. The comparison does not flatter England, either in government or the game.
The Bundesliga was re-opened yesterday after a herculean campaign by Germany's medical and political systems to comprehensively smother the pandemic. Having largely succeeded in so doing, it stabilised the ground under civic society in general. It was from this solid foundation that top-flight professional soccer prepared itself in recent weeks for re-launch.
There is still no such terra firma for the Premier League, nor it would appear for British society. In this crisis, a floundering Government has made for a frightened populace. The dramatically escalating toll of sickness and death in Britain seems to have destabilised confidence and trust nationwide. This has percolated down to a football industry that seems similarly disoriented. As with the Government, it appears to be chopping and changing from week to week, giving the unavoidable impression that it is making it up as it goes along.
Video conferences among representatives of the 20 Premier League clubs have been taking place for weeks. They have been producing more arguments than solutions. Instead of unity and solidarity, there is splintering and squabbling. A consensus in principle has been there to complete the 2019/20 season. Beyond that, the practicalities and logistics as to how it might be done have prompted myriad objections, and excuses for not doing it.
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It is a divided house, strong on self-interest, weak on common purpose and a solution-driven process. They have yet to agree on a date for a return to official club training, much less a date for the re-start of games. The clubs will make another attempt at it in another teleconference tomorrow morning.
Early last week the ongoing protests over the issue of neutral venues were still dominating the agenda. In fact it emerged after Monday's conference that objections to the use of neutral venues had spread from the bottom six to some mid-tier clubs and the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham too.
Senior police policy was insisting on teams playing at neutral venues to defuse a potential problem with home fans congregating outside home grounds, despite being banned from entering the stadium.
While the big clubs seemed initially agreeable, they were apparently prompted into belatedly opposing the idea for fear of jeopardising revenue from their corporate stadium sponsors.
On Tuesday then, word leaked out that police, officials from the Department of Sport and senior football executives had agreed to back down on the policy and re-visit the possibility of games being played home and away as per normal.
The focus then switched to the issue which perhaps will be most contentious of all: player safety. Professional sports people tend to be nervous thoroughbreds at the best of times. A tiny number of Premier League players had broken cover in previous weeks to voice their apprehensions about being used as guinea pigs for the entertainment of others. They had families and vulnerable loved ones to think about too.
On Monday, Boris Johnson announced a series of measures for a phased re-opening of society, including certain sports events from June 1. The return of international cricket and Premier League football would provide "a much-needed boost to national morale," he stated. To which Danny Rose replied later that day, "I don't give a f*** about the nation's morale". The Newcastle United loanee was commenting on Instagram Live. "Football shouldn't even be spoken about coming back until the numbers (infected) have dropped massively," said the England defender. "It's b******s. We'll see."
Also on Monday, the first Covid-19 tests at a Premier League club began. Members of staff at Wolverhampton Wanderers were swabbed nose and mouth. A drive-through station was set up for the purpose at the club's training ground. The samples were sealed and transported by courier to a laboratory in London. The results were expected back within 24 hours. It was a pilot process in preparation for the full roll-out across the Premier League. A biotechnology company in Hong Kong has been awarded the contract at an overall cost of £4m.
On Wednesday, the Premier League hosted two further teleconferences, one for the first-team managers, the other for club captains and senior players. Managers and players had earlier been provided with a summary version of the League's 40-page health-and-safety manual containing all the protocols for working under Covid-19. England's deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, sat in on the conferences and answered questions. The designated players had apparently many questions, some of them centred around insurance, contact training, how many weeks of 'pre-season' they would get, and rehabilitation protocols in the event of injury.
The Watford FC captain Troy Deeney was not convinced by the reassurances he'd heard at the video conference. The inherent contradiction between the realities of a contact sport and the demand for social distancing remains unresolved as far as he is concerned. "At corners," he said, "Watford have 11 men back so you're talking about having 18 or 19 men in a penalty area. That's not social distancing."
He questioned why an elaborate testing regime is being lavished upon footballers while NHS and other frontline care workers are being left without; he referred also to the fact that some ethnic minorities are suffering disproportionately from coronavirus compared to the white population.
"Nothing more is in place for black people within any of the structures they are talking about. So when you ask that question and nobody can answer that question, why are you going to keep taking the risk? I'm all for going back. But I am not for going back when it is not clear on how the steps are going to be made."
Deeney is well aware that there is an enormous financial struggle at the heart of Project Restart. There was an element of the barrack room lawyer about some of his other comments, and an ill-judged level of defiance when it came to the cash question. He said he would not play if it was going to put his family at risk. "What are they going to do, take money off me? I've been broke before so it doesn't bother me."
But it is bothering a lot of people, and not just in the boardrooms. Thousands of jobs and businesses connected to the industry are at risk. Club representatives were told at Monday's video conference that Sky and BT Sport were demanding a rebate of £350m, even if the season is completed, due to lost subscribers since football was closed in mid-March, and because the Premier League has not fulfilled its fixture schedule as per the agreed contracts. The shadow of a full rebate valued at £762m is hanging over them if the season is abandoned. And there is also the catastrophic trickle-down effect through the leagues below.
On Thursday, the culture secretary Oliver Dowden made it known that in return for government support, the Premier League and television companies should negotiate an agreement that will allow upwards of half of the remaining 92 games to be shown free-to-air. These would mostly be games not currently earmarked for live broadcast.
In the early planning for resumption, Friday June 12 was pencilled in as the likely first day of games. The expectation now is that it will be June 19 at the earliest - if it ever resumes at all. Tomorrow's meeting will see the clubs reaching for clarity or resorting once more to stalemate.
Sunday Indo Sport