At the end of March, a poll found that in societies locked down to combat Covid-19, almost 40% of young men said they felt the absence of live sport more keenly than any other deprivation, including going outside. Those pining for some action received their first proper fix for two months on Saturday, as the German equivalent of the Premier League reopened behind closed doors.
The Bundesliga is the first major football league to try to resume the interrupted season. In France, it was decided to curtail championships and award trophies on the basis of matches already played. In the Netherlands, the season was simply voided. The unfortunate players and supporters of SC Cambuur, who were 11 points clear at the top of the second division, are understandably miffed.
The English Premier League is fretfully keeping its fingers crossed, hoping that Germany’s experiment in “bio-secure” football works. The richest football league in the world hopes to relaunch its own competition sometime in June. Whether that is desirable or feasible has been the subject of fierce debate. If Project Restart is given the go-ahead this week, players are expected to begin non-contact training together, but the planning process has been fraught with difficulty. Some players have voiced deep reservations over safety. Protocols have yet to be finalised for a second phase, when full training will recommence. There is also concern that, after a long and unusual layoff, players have no hope of reaching proper match fitness before June. A glut of summer injuries might therefore accompany the 92 fixtures scheduled for empty stadiums, during a hectic seven-week period.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has suggested that the completion of the Premier League season would “lift the spirits of the nation”. It is true that the mass exposure of the national game in pubs and on TV has woven it into the fabric of many lives. But this rush back to the pitch is being dictated by financial imperatives rather than a desire to boost collective morale. Clubs stand to lose at least £300m in broadcast money from around the world, if they fail to complete the season. Many rely on these contracts to pay huge wages that have grown exponentially since the Premier League launched in 1992. Multimillion-pound sponsors will also demand rebates if they feel they have been short-changed.
Money talks, but it should not be allowed to bully. If players are to return so soon to a sport in which unpredictable physical contact is an obligation, there must be maximum confidence in testing procedures and in the efficacy of the “protective bubble” around pitch and stadium. And teams should be match-ready. Should Project Restart prove unworkable in the short summer timeframe, so be it.
If the league does resume, the matches are likely to be eerie, stilted affairs. Football without fans is not so much a new normal as a different event altogether. Liverpool would at least get the chance to deservedly win the Premier League in the traditional fashion. But safety, not the prospect of glory or the need to sustain turnover, must call the shots in the weeks to come.