Quarantining a football match: that’s the easy part. All you need to do is put a few contingencies in place. Clean the venue thoroughly. Make sure everyone going in and out is free of the virus. Separate entrances and tunnels for the two teams. Enforce socially distanced dressing rooms and dugouts. Masks all round. And because fans will still want to congregate near the stadium, even if they can’t go in, you need to close off the surrounding areas and enforce a secure buffer-zone. And there you have it: one bio-secure Premier League fixture in the can. Only 91 to go.
Unfortunately, that’s when things start to get a bit knotty. Because once Team A have safely played Team B, they travel somewhere else to play Team C. Meanwhile, Team B face Team D, who three days ago played Team E. Even a game behind closed doors at a neutral venue probably requires a minimum circus of 300 people, from coaches to medical staff to television crew. And presumably at some point everybody has to go home and kiss their kids goodnight – kids who may well have spent a significant part of the day in the company of other people’s kids.
Then, of course, you have to keep testing: at least a couple of times a week, around 40,000 in total, which might not be the best look if frontline NHS staff are still struggling to get swabbed. Then you have to decide what to do with players who refuse to play, perhaps because they have vulnerable relatives, or perhaps because their contracts expire on 30 June. Then you have to decide what to do if someone tests positive. Or worse, if there’s an outbreak. Or worse still, if there’s a second wave and the entire country is shut down again.
This is the problem the Premier League currently faces: the sheer impossibility of safely orchestrating a 20-team competition in the midst of a pandemic, the cast of thousands, the infinite moving parts, the endless colliding atoms of the fixture list. Even if you can somehow guarantee a sterile environment (you can’t), even if you strictly control who goes where (you can’t), invariably another problem presents itself, and then another, and then another: a contagion of question marks, multiplying and mutating into chaos.
In the circumstances, it is no wonder that some countries have decided to jack in the whole enterprise. The French Ligue 1, the Dutch Eredivisie and the Belgian Pro League have all called off their campaigns, with the Scottish Premiership rumoured to be on the verge of following. English cricket, while still hopeful of holding some international games behind closed doors, has privately given up hope of any domestic competition this year.
But still the Premier League holds out: unwavering in its determination to play every last minute of the season, plotting the logistics and the politics of its resumption with all the sombre rigour of a military offensive. This one even has its own name – “Project Restart” – and, like many military operations, risks the collateral deaths of thousands of innocent people. The Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero says “the majority of players are scared” about the prospect of returning to football under a plague shadow. So why the insistence on a restart? And why the unseemly rush?
There’s one simple answer and one that’s more complicated. According to some reports, Premier League clubs will collectively be on the hook for £762m in refunded broadcast payments if the season is abandoned. For the smaller clubs, already facing the disappearance of matchday revenue, this is potentially an extinction-level event. This being football, tribal self-interest has also played a significant part, with Liverpool fans desperate to see the season completed (with their club currently 25 points clear at the top) and clubs hovering just above the relegation zone understandably more cautious.
But although money is a strong motivation, it’s not the only consideration. For years, the Premier League’s major selling point has been not simply the quality of the product on the pitch, but the package offered with it: the endless stream of narratives and subnarratives, conflict and debate; the 24-hour soap opera that keeps fans engaged long after the final whistle. In a sporting landscape punctured by big set-piece events, the Premier League’s hallmark is ubiquity. It is an unending feed of content that you can simply hook up to your synapses and call a life.
This, above all, is what has made it one of the most lucrative and engaging sports brands in the world. The sense of inexorable routine, of grooved habits and behaviours, the week-long, year-long footballing serial that, by dint of its essential size and loudness, becomes something you can’t live without. So what happens when you have to live without it?
Perhaps, conversely, we find that habits can be broken. That routines can be rewired. That the desperate urge to watch the next episode, to discover what happens next, can be curbed over time. It’s interesting to note, for example, that there isn’t remotely the same urgency to restart the lower divisions of English football, even though their fans care just as much, their players are just as motivated, their incomes just as crucial (indeed, more so, given the precarious financial situation of many Football League clubs).
The Premier League’s mortal fear – one that goes beyond ruptured broadcast contracts or lost hospitality revenue – is that the captive audience it enjoyed before the pandemic will not be so captive after it. That a rhythm disrupted cannot seamlessly be resumed. That if you stop the ride, perhaps it’s inevitable some people will want to get off.
This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain