The world will probably have changed forever after the coronavirus pandemic has passed, but it’s up to all of us now to make sure we take the positives from this dire situation and come out the other side with a renewed appraisal for what is truly important. That does not mean football or sport in general is not important, quite the contrary. It’s about appreciating the joy something brings and recognising how we can make it better for everyone involved.
I personally hope we come out of this with businesses realising working from home is entirely feasible with modern technology, which in turn will cut down costly, time-consuming and environmentally-damaging commutes, not to mention take off some of the insane premium that is given to real estate in big cities. I desperately want us to start truly paying healthcare and essential workers the wages they deserve and reward them with far more than just applause once a week.
In terms of football, I can only hope we cut some of the ridiculous excess around the sport and learn to live within our means. It cannot be possible that clubs are prepared to pay millions in transfer fees, along with agent commissions, only to be on the verge of bankruptcy if one TV rights payment is missed. Financial Fair Play is too open to interpretation and ripe for abuse. There remain sides who build their success on a house of cards that could come crashing down at any minute, and others who scrape by constantly on the knife edge of economic oblivion.
The rush to get players to cut their salaries the moment sport ground to a halt was pure populism, blaming the young men who we make stars. If they are paid those wages, it’s because the clubs believe they’ll bring in even more money in revenue whether through performances, image rights or sponsorship deals. Their agents only ask for what the market tells them they can get. It’s a bit rich for Presidents or the media to treat them like selfish, greedy figures when they are the ones obsessed with making a big splash on the transfer market rather than building a long-term project. Throw money at the problem and then ask for it back. Well done the Premier League players who refused to simply hand over their salaries without knowing where that money would go, instead banding together to contribute to local health services and charities themselves. They knew it’d do little other than protect the pockets of the club owners, who were busy furloughing staff left, right and centre.
No, we should take the lessons of the lockdown all over the globe to get football back to basics, cut off the fat and focus on what makes this the most popular sport in the world. That means fewer games, fewer clubs and fewer tournaments. I’m looking at you, Nations League, along with whatever the League Cup is called nowadays in England and the proposed third UEFA club competition that will somehow be even less interesting or prestigious than the Europa League. Cut the domestic divisions down to 16 teams, 18 maximum, so there is genuine competition and you don’t automatically know who is getting relegated within the first two months of the season. Keep transfer fees down and pass the savings on to the fans by reducing the ridiculous cost of tickets. If clubs are weak or unable to make themselves a viable business, then merge to create something that can last. The fans will be annoyed at first, but that’s better than disappearing entirely or pinning all your hopes on some oil-rich and morality-deficient owner to come swooping in. They always fly off again the moment they get bored or something else comes along to act as a giant tax dodge.
Let us reward the virtuous clubs who run on their own steam, nurture talent in their youth academies and connect with the community they are based in. Atalanta have shown it’s a model that works, reaching the Champions League quarter-finals. Bergamo was the city hit hardest in Italy by the COVID-19 outbreak and some epidemiologists point to the Atalanta-Valencia Round of 16 match at San Siro as one of the main flashpoints for the spread of the virus. Around 40,000 travelled to Milan for that game, returning to Bergamo a mass of celebrating, hugging and kissing for the 4-1 victory, staying up well into the night to fill the streets and mark an historic occasion. They weren’t to know what would happen, that just over a month later they’d see a convoy of military trucks driving down the main road, carrying coffins to other regions because the local crematorium was overwhelmed.
Some even suggested giving Atalanta the Serie A title as a sign of rebirth in Bergamo, but they wouldn’t have accepted it anyway. We will see those fans, players and staff get back out there on to the football pitch, all together in their impressive newly-refurbished stadium, and it will be the greatest victory of all.