The effect of COVID-19 has been greater than what it meant for football. But the impact was felt greatly by the sport around the world, Gaby McKay writes…
If there’s one thing we’ve grown accustomed to in modern football, it’s that it never really stops. The Champions League final, the traditional curtain drop for the club football season, typically takes place on the first Saturday in June and qualifying for the next season begins barely a month later. Over the summer fans can typically enjoy the World Cup, the European Championship or the Copa America and if those aren’t on the world’s biggest club sides will be playing glamour friendlies across the globe.
On almost any day, at any time of the year, you can bet that someone, somewhere, is playing professional football. Then, in the space of just a few days, everything stopped.
The crucial date was March 13. It seems almost impossible to believe now that Rangers took on Bayer Leverkusen in front of 47,000 people the day before, while 24 hours before that Liverpool were eliminated from the Champions League in front of 52,000. That fateful Friday was the day the football stopped.
Italy, hit hard and early by COVID-19 had already suspended Serie A, while Spain and the Czech Republic – as well as MLS – also stopped early. But much of the continent played on. Then, on March 13, UEFA suspended the Champions League and Europa League. Then the French leagues stopped. England’s Football League ground to a halt and the Premier League soon followed. Scotland and Wales announced their leagues were suspended, followed by Germany. The Euro 2020 play-offs went. So did the AFCON qualifiers.
For football fans those few days in March resembled the film ‘Independence Day’, in which the world’s major cities are systematically destroyed by alien invaders. Indeed, you’d probably have got shorter odds on extraterrestrials blowing up the White House than you would the world’s most popular game just stopping abruptly in what was, for most, mid-season.
In the aftermath of football’s great disaster movie not much happened. France, Belgium, Scotland and the Netherlands ended their leagues amid acrimony and legal challenges but the rest largely went into cold storage.
An initial UEFA target to finish the Champions League and Europa League in June were quickly thrown out when the scale of human suffering across the continent became apparent. Two ties in the latter competition involving Italian teams hadn’t even begun, while Champions League second legs were also still waiting to be played.
For close to three months there was no top-level football played anywhere. The only place to see players kicking a ball around a pitch was Belarus, whose president had advised the population that vodka and saunas would keep the virus at bay. Slowly the game staggered from the wreckage and emerged blinking into the light but not in the way we all recognise. It’s football, Jim, but not as we know it.
Legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein once declared “football without fans is nothing”, but as Germany’s Bundesliga cranked back into action it appeared he hadn’t been quite right. Football played in empty stadiums is certainly something, though quite what is hard to define.
Seeing Germany’s most fiercely contested derby, Schalke vs. Borussia Dortmund, played in total silence was rather unnerving, as was the sight of socially distanced goal celebrations. Substitutes sitting in the stands in masks just helped hammer home the post-apocalyptic vibe.
Human beings can adapt to even the most bizarre of situations given time though, and soon the new normal became, if not embraced, then at least tolerated. By June all of Europe’s major leagues – save the aforementioned Ligue 1 – were back underway and in quite some fashion.
With UEFA setting a deadline of August 3 to finish domestic leagues, hundreds of games have had to be crammed into a window of two months. In Italy they finished the domestic cup competition over four days, before returning to league action with a Serie A game every day. In Spain and England too it’s almost impossible to find a day where there isn’t at least one game on.
We thought that nothing could stop football, and it took a global pandemic. And as we emerge into a post-shutdown world that truism of the modern game is more relevant than ever – the football never really stops.