Pandemic precedence: Public health is always more important than football

(Image courtesy of UEFA/AFP)

As Coronavirus spreads across the globe, some perspective and common sense are needed. The game, unlike COVID-19, is not a matter of life and death. Seriously, Shanks.

As Arrigo Sacchi (the revolutionary AC Milan coach of the 80s and 90s) once said, football is “the most important of the unimportant things in life.” This could not be any more true than it is now. Some things are (actually) more important than the game we love, with the health of humanity at the summit of that list. Of course, it is an inconvenience that football grinds to a halt and games; competitions and seasons are thrown into doubt, but in the grand scheme of things, football’s necessary hardline stance is a no-brainer.

Italy has been the most afflicted European country, and was also the first big sufferer when it came to COVID-19’s impact at the of top European football’s hierarchical landscape. Italy, however (and the UK government; not exclusively the Premier League and Football Association), showed — with a typically Italian efficient, robust tackle — how to deal with an outbreak. 

Football in Italy, informed by decisions made above its head, took the relevant swift and definitive action. Serie A was suspended until at least April 3, with the entire season now being brought into question. Last weekend, five games took place in the league on Sunday before another the following night. All were played behind closed doors amid eerie sensibleness. If the Italian season were to be abandoned, it would be the first time since the stunning Calciopoli match-fixing scandal in 2004-05. As football joins the rest of the sporting world along with general society as entering a potentially genuine crisis period, Italy’s response showed that football, rightly so, is not as important as the health of millions.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, only the gunfire of two World Wars had previously halted “calcio” in football-mad Italy. There is a strangely apocalyptic feel to the current scenario, and the repercussions across the continent are huge. As more players and coaches are diagnosed with the virus, there is an instant ripple effect; a scramble regarding the knock-on consequences. For example, in light of the club’s announcement on Thursday night that manager Mikel Arteta had tested positive for COVID-19, the entire Arsenal first-team squad was sent into self-isolation, along with more than 100 staff members.

It seems likely — although such assumptions can be dangerous ones to make — that Arteta’s contraction of the virus is linked to news that broke earlier in the week regarding Evangelos Marinakis. The Nottingham Forest and Olympiakos owner announced on Monday that he had the virus, which seemed the first of a series of high-profile diagnoses to people within the professional game. The Greek side played Arsenal two weeks ago, which had led to the postponement of Arsenal’s visit to Manchester City on Wednesday. 

The subsequent news regarding the club’s own head coach has cast further doubt on the remainder of the season for the Gunners, as well as having repercussions for the Premier League. Ultimately, it may be forced to take the same decision as the Italian top tier and the novelty response of the DFL and DFB in Germany. The associations are reportedly considering ending the Bundesliga season after this weekend to come, with no trophy to be awarded and no relegation taking place. As a compromise, the Bundesliga would be expanded to 22 teams for the 2020-21 season, with the top four teams making the step up from the pyramid’s second tier. Could this be the way forward?

A pair of high-profile, unrelated instances in English football on Thursday both came within hours of the Arteta news, as Benjamin Mendy of Man City entered self-isolation after a family coronavirus scare and Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea tested positive for the disease. The instances followed news earlier in the week that Italy and Juventus defender Daniele Rugani had become the most prominent professional player to be tested positive for COVID-19.

Thursday, then, was a day which should act as the final straw in what has been a delayed response from the Premier League to the virus’ outbreak up to this point. The domino effect is very real, demonstrating just how seriously the authorities must take the issue, following the lead of other major leagues continent-wide.

Mind you, the Premier League’s seemingly delayed and haphazard response was laughable. Just hours after announcing that this weekend’s round of fixtures would go ahead as planned, the Premier League disclosed that on Friday it would host emergency talks. Had it not checked with Arsenal beforehand — who had seemingly almost entered a period of uncertainty regarding the virus already — before confirming the upcoming weekend’s schedule? Had the league not considered that there were two teams whose game they had just cancelled, for the exact reason which concerns both the football and larger contextual spheres?

Apparently, it didn’t know about impending positive test results, or you would assume the game schedule would not have been passed fit for schedule. It still doesn’t make sense for the league to have only perceivably start showing initiative once one of its primary figures was inevitably afflicted. In any case, given the lead of the multiple case studies around Europe dealing with the same issue, the smart move would have been to at least postpone more fixtures; with the dates of if and when they are to be rescheduled rendered insignificant in the bigger picture.

There can be only one outcome on Friday. The league must be suspended and, for now, expected to be caught up with at a later date. Even that may become less likely if the virus’ spread progresses. Nevertheless, suggestions of rendering the season void are both entirely misplaced and largely irrelevant. Without doubt, these scares that have shaken the Premier League to its core are sure to be felt. Hopefully, they are acted upon sufficiently.

COVID-19 has seen a ludicrous series of events that demonstrates the need for football, particularly now in the United Kingdom, to take this seriously. But the whole continent must act accordingly. UEFA on Tuesday announced that it would be holding a “Coronavirus videocall with officials from its 55 national FAs, European Club Association, European Leagues and FIFPro over #covid19 response and what to do about “all domestic and European competitions, including UEFA EURO 2020.”

Aleksander Ceferin been the president of UEFA since 2016. Now, he faces his toughest challenge yet, leading the response of Europe’s footballing authorities to the widespread outbreak of COVID-19. (Image courtesy of AFP).

With regards to Euro 2020, there is no way the tournament should be held, at least this summer. That is looking unlikely, and once again rightly so. For UEFA to not cancel the European Championships at this point would be negligent, given that the entire premise of its new multiple-city format would give rise to a pandemic that is spreading rampantly across the globe and the continent. Hosting a tournament centered around the free movement and interaction of fans, players and staff members of multiple nations dispersed over 12 host cities in a dozen different countries would lack any rationality.

So, as football readies itself for an ongoing struggle, fanatics have no choice but to be patient (a trait they are not often associated with). Out of frustration, logic must prevail. As the current pandemic casts its dark shadow over society and the not-so-important world of sport, common sense is of vital importance. The health of the British public, of which it is estimated that up to 80% could contract the roaming disease, is ever so slightly more important than the continuation of the football season. Only just though.

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