Beautiful Game – Ugly Virus

Sporting Talent looks at the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on football

There’s not a news programme or newspaper that’s not talking about Coronavirus and the life-changing impact that it’s having on our society. During a time of international crisis, people ordinarily turn to sport to escape their life problems, but on this occasion, we’re all in it together.  

The effect (both direct and indirect) that the pandemic is having on football is significant. Marcus Rashford recently commented in his interview with the Financial Times (FT), that a combination of the extended football season and no spectators at matches, has resulted in the players feeling exhausted. “I know it sounds stupid,” he said, “but with no fans, not having them behind you, it’s so difficult to keep on going.”

There has always been much debate about how playing football without spectators, can affect the match result, in the same way that playing at home creates an advantage for the local team. This is underpinned by plenty of evidence about the motivational benefits of playing in front of a crowd, as well as the valuable mental distraction which can alleviate physical symptoms such as fatigue and pain. This can often been seen at marathon races (such as London and New York) where runners are spurred on by large crowds, giving a physical boost to their strength and stamina.

Although in the UK, the English Football League staged a pilot plan in September with up to 1,000 fans being permitted to attend matches, this was quickly put on hold within weeks of the announcement, with indications being given that sizeable crowds may not be able to return to English stadiums until 2021. Meanwhile Germany is proceeding with a pilot project allowing a maximum of 20% of fans (home supporters only) to return to stadiums and this decision will be reviewed again at the end of October.  Some are questioning whether similar pilots should be replicated in other parts of the world. There will also be a partial return of spectators to UEFA matches (capped at 30% of stadium capacity, where local laws permit) and it will be interesting to see how this pans out. Watch this space!

During the height of the pandemic, the impact the crisis was having on the mental health of footballers became increasingly high profile. FIFPro’s (The Fédération Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels) study of 1,602 professional players conducted between 22nd March and 22nd April 2020, uncovered that 22% of 468 female players and 13% of 1,134 male players reported symptoms connected to depression and anxiety. Meanwhile only a month later, PFA (Professional Footballers Association) surveyed 262 members between mid-April and mid-May and found that circa 14% of 111 current players felt that the pandemic had affected their mental health and were worried about their future career, to the extent that 72% were aware of feelings of nervousness or anxiety and 9% were battling against damaging addictive habits. As a result of the pandemic, many players have been struggling with the lack of structure, financial concerns (being asked to take pay cuts or defer wages) and the uncertainty of the new football season.

Coronavirus is affecting every aspect of the game and the profession, from the change in the substitution rule (resulting in players having insufficient time to recuperate between games – a whole debate of its own) to the financial impact from which all clubs are suffering. Some lower league clubs, in particular, are now being pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly where a significant percentage of their revenue is generated by ticket sales and they are lacking the support of large advertising and sponsorship contracts, unlike the more sizeable clubs.

On what will undoubtedly be one of the most challenging seasons since the Second World War, ‘the beautiful game’ will have to solider on against the ugly virus, battling financial pressures, as well as operational ones. Although football is more than a game, it’s a way of life for many, the health and safety of players and fans will need to remain the highest priority. #WeAreOneTeam