Coronavirus Outbreak: COVID-19 crisis presents global football a chance at redemption
Football, like society, faces its biggest crisis since World War II. How the sport addresses this will go a long way in deciding its future
Football, the world’s favorite pastime, is in lockdown. In a matter of weeks, Erling Haaland’s goalscoring prowess and VAR’s dotted lines and armpits-incidents have become trivial. Liverpool’s dramatic elimination at the hands of Atletico Madrid was one last reminder of why football is a matrix of uncontrollables and a soul-stirring game.
Since then, football has slowly clanked to a halt, a trickle of postponements becoming a flood. On Monday, the Newcastle Jets defeated Melbourne City FC 2-1 before a suspension was imposed. Somehow, in Belarus, the ball keeps rolling.
In the season’s curtain-raiser, Energetyk-BGU defeated BATE Borisov last week, with 730 fans in attendance. Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko has suggested that the coronavirus is a ‘psychosis.’ Belarus is football’s last outpost. On Monday, even Angola suspended their domestic league.
And so, as the health crisis following the outbreak of the coronavirus paralyses the world, football ponders: What is next for the global game? The current hiatus will come at an economic cost.
International accounting firm KPMG estimates that Europe's top five leagues could lose up to $4.3 billion. Will the sport, the ultimate global spectacle, be slowed down in the next decade?
The past ten years were football’s golden decade: Football scaled new heights, hypnotising a global audience in spite of the widespread corruption that tarnished game’s corridors of powers.
In 2015, the Baur Au Lac Hotel was the scene of FIFAGate when American authorities swept on football’s greedy, immoral and impervious leaders. Sepp Blatter exited the world federation; Gianni Infantino replaced the longstanding official, but FIFA’s old culture and structure remain very much alive.
The game went into financial overdrive. Football was assaulted by state-approved sports-washing and became infested by nefarious agents and other actors who propagated the insidious influence of money. But all of that seemed to matter little in the age of ‘sportainment,’ when the game morphed into modernity’s bread and circuses.
The Premier League and the Champions League were global blockbusters whereas the World Cup reaffirmed its position as the world’s top sporting event. The last global finals in Russia provided a quadrennial high mass on steroids; one that lasted a spine-tingling four weeks with giant-slaying, video assistant referees, multicultural teams and the drowsy illusion of football coming home. At an individual level, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi redefined athleticism and shattered records.
The new decade brings obvious challenges: When will the world federation remove the stain of FIFAGate and truly implement tangible reform? How can both FIFA and UEFA prevent Europe, predicated on its economic supremacy, from running away with the game? Will the women’s game remain a perennial afterthought, even after the success of the 2019 World Cup? Can Africa redeem themselves and halt an endless spiral of corruption?
The outbreak of the coronavirus , however, poses a more existential question: Is football’s golden age over? Will the riches be eviscerated in a matter of months or however long it takes for the global pandemic to subside? Last week’s events suggested that the football industry realises the game is about to change.
Euro 2020 and the 2020 Copa America were both postponed for a year, but it was the conciliatory tone of both UEFA and FIFA that was striking. After years and months of wrangling for pole position in the global game, the power play between the two most powerful governing bodies has been put on hold.
It is now about damage control. In an interview with Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, FIFA president Infantino, celebrating his 50th birthday, expanded on the game’s future. "Perhaps we can reform football by taking a step backwards," said Infantino. "(There would be) fewer but more interesting competitions, maybe fewer teams but for a better balance, fewer but more competitive matches to preserve players' health.”
Those words mark a U-turn from some of Infantino’s previous ideas, including the expanded and now postponed Club World Cup. They evince that football officials are considering a financial crisis of unseen scale.
Football, like society, faces its biggest crisis since World War II. How the sport addresses this will go a long way in deciding its future: Will solidarity, redistribution and more equality prevail to reinforce the ecosystem and grassroots? Those features have been missing from the game for too long. This crisis is an opportunity to revitalise football.
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