Analysis: EPL restart mired in health risks, self-interest
As so often happens in the Premier League, self-interest and money could come out on top even in the midst of a health crisis.
The rush to restart soccer during the coronavirus pandemic has been framed as a national purpose.
“It would lift the spirits of the nation,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said at the daily Downing Street coronavirus news conference on Tuesday, where he deputized for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish was more explicit about the wider motivations when there are $1 billion worth of games yet to be televised this season.
“Yes, it is partly about the money,” Parish said. “And we should all care about the money.”
At some point a decision will have to be made on whether financial obligations outweigh the risk of playing sport during a pandemic where Britain now has the world’s second-highest announced death toll.
The Premier League insists it will only restart when it is “safe and appropriate to do so,” but the vague aspiration obscures the reality that lives are at risk as long as there is no COVID-19 vaccine.
Squads have yet to resume group training. When they do it will require players, coaches and support staff to be subjected to regular COVID-19 testing to prove they don’t have the virus. Tests aren’t even freely available in the rest of England and there are still shortages of the protective equipment the football medics will need.
Fresh doubts about the wisdom of staging matches soon surfaced this week when testing across Germany’s top two divisions uncovered 10 new cases of the coronavirus.
And unless players are isolated from their families until the season is complete, there is the danger of infections spreading among squads and their families.
“There’s a certain risk attached to the return to training for all players,” Aston Villa manager Dean Smith told Sky Sports TV. “We’ve got a player who is asthmatic. We’ve got a player whose mother-in-law is in remission and living with the family. You have to be very careful, certainly the transmission knows no boundaries.”
Even if the national lockdown that has been in place since March is eased, social distancing will remain. That is why fans will be banned from stadiums for the foreseeable future. Players, however, cannot be separated by two meters in training, let alone in a match when Premier League places are on the line.
In Spain, players and coaches at Eibar are wary of going along with La Liga’s push for them to return to training.
“We are afraid of starting an activity in which we won’t be able to comply with the first recommendation of all health experts, physical distancing,” they said in a statement. “We are concerned that by doing what we love the most we could get infected and infect our family members and friends.”
Disinfecting balls and goalposts won’t prevent virus transmission when there is close player-to-player contact.
“For me it would be crazy for the Premier League to resume until there is a vaccine to protect you,” West Ham striker Manuel Lanzini told Argentine station Radio Continental.
Fellow Argentine Sergio Aguero, the Manchester City striker, claimed the “majority of players are scared” — especially when the coronavirus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers.
Yet the Premier League wants to resume by June after being suspended since March, even if that means the remaining 92 fixtures are contested in vast empty stadiums.
It could be a soulless experience for players and fans alike.
Clubs can’t even agree on the venues for games.
Based on advice from place and safety experts, the league told clubs they won’t be able to play at home and half of the teams’ regular stadiums cannot be used. It’s not just that stadiums like those belonging to Brighton and Tottenham have been turned into medical facilities, the concern is fans would still try to congregate outside.
But the 20 clubs are not all willing to accept the league’s proposals. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the public opponents to the plan are teams facing relegation — Brighton and West Ham — rather than a side like Liverpool on the verge of ending the 30-year title drought.
The sporting integrity and fairness of the competition would be harmed, dissenters argue, if teams can’t play in familiar surroundings.
But if preventing the season from being completed is an attempt to avoid relegation, it could be at a severe financial cost to the competition overall.
“I genuinely don’t feel people are thinking clearly about the ramifications if we don’t play,” said Parish, whose Palace side sits comfortably in mid-table. “We would be in a position where fundamentally we are airlines from August.”
That is the doomsday scenario — the world’s richest football league is left with a deficit it says could exceed 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion).
The financial ramifications could scare teams and their squads into accepting any plan to complete the season. Money can only go some way toward paying to mitigate health risks in a country where the coronavirus death toll now exceeds 30,000 and still rising.
The government that was slow to shut down sports now seems hasty in helping the Premier League restart.