The light at the end of the footy tunnel

Covid-19 has ravaged through the sports world with perhaps no game more universally impacted than football,  leaving clubs, competitions and federations reeling from the impact of the novel corona virus.  With few exceptions such as Belarus and Sweden, most competitions were shuttered as of mid-March.  From Albania to Zimbabwe, footy was shut down and only now are some countries creeping out of the storm cellars and entering the light at the end of the tunnel.

Professional football is of course a business and like so many other sectors, it has been deeply impacted economically.  That said, football is also a sport with deep cultural and social ties to society and in countries with the wherewithal to step in, support has been extended or is underway to shore up the sport and ensure its survival.

In the Netherlands, Covid-19 brought down an early curtain on a competition that was set to go to the wire. When play was suspended after the FC Groningen – PSV Eindhoven match on March 8, AZ Alkmaar and Ajax stood above the ladder.  Ajax had the advantage on goal differential and the nod for top seeding of UEFA’s European club competition was given to the Amsterdam, something that did not sit well with AZ given that they had defeated Ajax twice in the competition.  In a season already marred by the collapse of their stadium roof, AZ’s director Robert Eenhoorn broke ranks and took his case directly to UEFA.  However, his plea fell on deaf ears and AZ were sent back to the KNVB in the expected flow of football hierarchy.  While Eenhoorn’s move raised eyebrows, it was also a perfect example of the damage caused by the pandemic which is still being tallied and unfortunately has not yet come to an end.

In April, the KNVB sounded an alarm that the damage to professional soccer could tally some 400 million Euros.  Since that time, the Dutch football association has submitted a Delta Plan calling for 140 million Euros of government support in addition to an own solidarity plan which will see European football income redistributed.  Additionally, the plan outlined a 7-step return to business as usual with Eredivisie fixtures sans spectators slated for September and capacity stadiums planned for January of 2021.

By abandoning the season, the Netherlands joined a small club of European countries choosing for prudence over profit, together with Belgium and France. Driven by a desperate need to re-open the television rights faucet of money, most European football associations have resumed their competitions and games are being played out in empty stadiums in Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.  The matches have also been a lifeline to footy aficionados in the Netherlands who have always shown a keen interest in competitions over the border.   With a number of Dutch players sprinkled throughout their rosters, the German competition was the first major league back on the screen. Rights holder Fox Sports NL even ran a promotion helping Dutch viewers to choose their favorite Bundesliga team – reminiscent of the stemwijzer voter guide that appears during each election cycle.

Despite the best efforts to put on a brave face, empty stadiums are proving to be the scourge of all sports but the effect on soccer is palpable. Cavernous stadiums, with only the sound of reserve players, training staff and a few stadium personnel provide a ghastly soundtrack to the beautiful game.  The novelty of hearing the players on the pitch wears thin quickly and broadcasters are scrambling to make their television productions more palatable.  Spain’s La Liga, for example, has been using a combination of computer-generated fan backgrounds during wide shots together with canned stadium noise.  Technology such as that used by startup Hear Me Cheer is being experimented with to see if actual fan cheers (and boos) from home can be rebroadcast within the stadium and on television.

There is an old adage which asks the question: “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is present, does it still make a sound”?  Inevitably, there is only thing that will signal the return of football and ensure the viability of the sport.  Despite all the creativity that the sports industry can muster with computer enhancements, drive-in fan parties and even games against ‘invisible opponents’ by the likes of Locomotive Leipzig, it will be the return of fans that will ultimately save the game.  While plans are in the making to welcome under-capacity crowds with reserved venue entry times, batteries of disinfectant gel dispensers and concession ordering apps, it will only be when the turnstiles are fully open that we will know that footy is truly saved.  The work to ensure that will happen is underway in laboratories throughout the world and slowly but surely in test jabs shot into brave humans.  Perhaps for the short term, the teams we need to back are not Arsenal, Bayern or Ajax, but the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and the Jennings Institute!

Written by John Mahnen