Soccer's attempt to continue as normal, except without any fans, proved to be a predictably short-sighted decision, especially for teams like Valencia of Spain and Atalanta of Italy. They were compelled to meet in the Champions League in Milan last month (at that time part of Italy's infected 'red zone') and again in Valencia behind closed doors three weeks later, and now both teams are among several being quarantined after numerous players tested positive for the virus. The issue of whether or not to play 'ghost games' became moot once the health risks of traveling and competing against each other became a reality for players and staff.
It's a rarity when sheltered, well-paid sportsmen are touched by the events of the real world, but most have been quick to react in a sane and humane fashion. Toni Kroos of Real Madrid, another team in quarantine, told German TV channel Pro7 that, despite self-isolation, he's in a privileged position compared to others, and that he and his family are fine. Bayern Munich's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has admitted that he and his fellow professionals are giving serious thought to the suggestion made by Bavaria's state president Markus Söder that they should give up part or all of their salaries to help others.
About those salaries. They are part of the reason that so many clubs are suddenly petrified that they will soon go out of existence without the income from sponsorship, merchandise, gate receipts and -- most lucrative of all -- TV contracts. That is not to blame the players for taking what they've signed up for. It's to blame the clubs as a whole for a risky, short-term business mentality that has placed the rush for success over the need for stability. Lost among the self-generating hype about being the biggest and best competitions in the world (particular offenders: the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League) has been all sense of perspective about what soccer clubs mean to their communities, and the importance of the game beyond profit and silverware.
Even before the pandemic, bankruptcies this season alone included storied clubs such as Bury FC (English third tier, twice FA Cup winners), while in the German fourth tier SG Wattenscheid and Rot-Weiss Erfurt have both gone under. In the same country's third division, former Bundesliga champion Kaiserslautern have been hanging by a thread for years. The same applies to four-time FA Cup winners and ex-Premier League regulars Bolton Wanderers, now at the foot of England's third tier following a 12-point deduction for financial chicanery.
There are many reasons a club can go under, and many of the teams cited above have been managed with gross negligence. Yet their struggles also exemplify the lack of solidarity in the European game, where cash has become the primary method to beat down the competition. Impulse purchasing as a swift path to success has also been to the detriment of many clubs' youth development programs, while the large amounts of money that have flooded in to the game have been concentrated toward the elite through top-heavy TV deals. So, when European soccer returns, I suggest the following:
• The 2019-20 domestic and European season is given time to play out until the end of the calendar year. Uefa, the bigger clubs, and their well-paid players set up a solidarity fund for the teams facing bankruptcy or severe financial difficulties. Fans are offered the chance to invest in the fund.
• World soccer then moves to a unified calendar year, starting with 2021, as practiced in the northern European leagues and Major League Soccer. There will be a six-week break for major tournaments, either in summer or in winter.
• To allow for those breaks, and some breaks from the game in general, club soccer must cut back its schedule. There are too many games already, too many drawn-out competitions. Forget FIFA President Gianni Infantino's impractical, cash-grasping Club World Cup idea, abolish League Cups (only England and Scotland still have these, France is planning to finish its League Cup after this season), abolish FA Cup replays and always give home advantage to the team from the lower division, restrict all top flights to 18 teams. Eliminate the laborious league phases of the Champions League and the Europa League and make them straight knockout competitions again. Less income, but less predictability and more excitement.
UEFA introduces a Europe-wide salary cap, or a draconian tax on the game's top earners that is diverted to the solidarity fund (see above). Agents must be trained, licensed,
ethically assessed, and restricted to taking no more than 5% of any deal they are involved in. Place a ceiling on transfer fees, with an independent arbitrator resolving disputes about a given
• Finally stop the commercially driven hyperbole and the exploitation of supporter 'passion' that makes top-flight soccer obsessed with business, sponsorship and profit. Turn it instead into a conversation about soccer's social and cultural value, and what it means to the vast majority of fans and participants. From the top down, administrations must implement rules and offer training and guidance on long-term, sustainable management of a club's finances.
• Re-distribute TV income equally from the biggest leagues and European competitions among all professional clubs, with that money invested solely in youth development.
There may be flaws and omissions in these suggestions, but we've a few weeks to think about them. If an amateur coach and referee can come up with half a dozen talking points over breakfast, then the game's finest minds should be able to propose something much more workable and comprehensive. The game can not just take up again where it left off. Only a radical, far-reaching, egalitarian-motivated re-think can help soccer's long term survival and measured prosperity in a healthy, post-viral world.
(Ian Plenderleith's last book, The Quiet Fan (Unbound, 2018), attempted to use comedy, anecdote and self-reflection to explore the role that soccer plays in most people's lives, and the way that we watch and relate to the game. You can buy it HERE.)