Football’s Post-Covid Future: How Soon Is Now?
On the 24th March, the English Football League (EFL) announced “zero positive (Covid) test results” over a weekly testing bout “for the first time.” No positives. Not even in Rotherham, thankfully. This came from 5,524 tests from 15-21 March. The following week, the English Premier League (EPL) announced a record low one positive, from 2,210 tests. So, the stage was set for a Covid-free week across English club football’s top full-time professional ranks.
Alas, no. The EPL equalled its record low last week, from 2,664 tests but there were three EFL positives among the 4,919 tests from 22-28 March and a further three among the 5,804 tested in the seven days to last Sunday.
Seventy-one EFL clubs returned “zero positives” in that first week. So, all the positives were from the same club. Likely Lincoln City, who announced on 30th March that they had to call off their two Easter (-ish) fixtures, Good Friday’s hosting of Milton Keynes Dons and Tuesday’s trip to Charlton Athletic, and close their modestly/ambitiously-entitled training facility, the Elite Performance Centre.
Last week’s three positives came from two clubs, with one being Championship strugglers Sheffield Wednesday, who tweeted on 2nd April that manager Darren Moore had tested positive. He therefore missed Wednesday’s only-goal Good Friday defeat at automatic promotion likelihoods Watford. However, he also remotely observed their remarkable 5-0 thumping of play-off hopefuls (pre-match, anyway) Cardiff City on Easter Monday.
Steve Cotterill, now recovering at home from ‘Covid pneumonia’ (continued best wishes to him), managed League One Shrewsbury Town “by phone and Zoom calls,” while recovering from Covid in February. And the Sheffield Star newspaper said that Moore has used the, ahem, videotelephony software for daily contacts with the squad and “performed” the pre-match and half-time talks” against Watford and Cardiff. “Technology nowadays, with Zoom and what have you, it’s great,” Owls assistant Jamie Smith gushed. Managing on “Zoom and what have you” is starting to look like football’s future.
The impact of the just-completed international break on clubs’ test results is still awaited. Sky Sports mis-headlining last week’s one EPL positive as coming “after” it. But the report underneath contained the less eye-catching but, y’know, accurate, information that the tests “fell within the window where players returned to their clubs from international duty.” They were undertaken between 29th March and 4th April. The last internationals were played on 31st March. And the virus can take at least that long to show up in tests. So, cool your boots, Sky Sports. Cool your boots.
Cote D’Ivoire ‘provided’ the first two EPL ‘victims’ of the international break. Defender Willy Boly missed Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Easter Monday evening defeat to West Ham United, which propelled the high-flying Hammers into the fourth EPL Champions League qualifying spot (no comment on this season’s EPL, that, none at all). And he will miss Friday’s trip to low-flying Fulham because of his Covid-induced self-isolation.
Fellow Ivorian Eric Bailly missed Manchester United’s squeak past Brighton last Sunday. However, fellow Ivorians Serge Aurier and Wilfried Zaha were Covid-unscathed. Zaha played for Crystal Palace at Everton on Monday. Aurier missed Tottenham’s rocky defensive horror show at Newcastle on Sunday (lucky lad) after allegedly returning from the internationals too late to test for Covid. Likewise, allegedly, Spurs team-mate, Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld. But these allegations formed part of Spurs boss Jose Mourinho’s latest meltdown, the details of which I’ll not bore you with here.
Nonetheless, football is reflecting life again, good and bad, matching the good general virus news as the UK vaccine rollout cascades down the age ranges, while matching the bad general virus news from mainland Europe and beyond.
A raft of players ‘returned from international duty’ with Covid. The Italian and Turkish camps almost gave the impression of being super-spreader events. So much so that the clean sweep of negative tests at Italian league leaders Internazionale was headline news. But further headlines were made by the eight Azzurri announced as Covid-positive since the internationals, including Marco Verratti, who also tested positive in January, alongside four staff members, including assistant coach Daniele de Rossi, who has “pneumonia symptoms.”
There were six Turkish positives too. And Paris Saint-Germain’s madder-than-Mad-McMad Champions League quarter-final win at Bayern Munich was near-decimated. Real Madrid were also missing French centre-back Raphael Varane against Liverpool, although Liverpool’s attacking anaemia meant they didn’t miss him much.
However, the strangest story of the break came from six Benin players who claimed they were falsely tested positive BEFORE their African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier in Sierra Leone on 30th March. Benin were told, on arrival by bus at Sierra Leone’s National Stadium, that tests undertaken in Sierra Leone had revealed the positives. But they claimed their own tests, 72 hours earlier, had shown a clean bill of Covid health across the squad. And the team refused to fulfil the fixture without their full squad.
After some hours delay, as local law enforcement sought to remove the positively-tested from the bus, the game was postponed. African football’s governing confederation (CAF) have rescheduled it for June, as the result will determine the 24th qualifying nation for AFCON 2022 in Cameroon. Sierra Leone would qualify with a win. Benin only need a draw.
Unsurprisingly, then, Sierra Leone’s FA (SLFA) has appealed CAF’s decision, claiming that the rules say Benin should “forfeit the points” for refusing to fulfil the fixture, despite having enough players for a matchday squad of sorts. But the qualifiers have been pock-marked with claims of host nations using false positive test results to deplete opposition resources. And Benin’s FA say they are “preparing” to claim the points on this basis, accusing the SLFA of “deception and foul play,” as the relevant players tested negative again back in Benin last Wednesday. This could run and run…and run.
Covidiocy continues to make occasional, and contrasting, headlines. “Juventus Shame,” declared Goal.com over their report on Juve players, Argentine forward Paulo Dybala and Brazilian midfielder Arthur Melo, attending a Covid-curfew breaching dinner party hosted by American team-mate Weston McKenzie. The trio were omitted from the squad for Saturday’s 2-2 Turin derby draw with Torino. And under-pressure manager Andrea Pirlo said this decision was his, adding: “It was not the right time to (have a party). We are examples and it is right that we behave like this.”
They didn’t “behave like” that for long, as the trio returned to training on Sunday, before Wednesday’s huge Serie A meeting with Napoli. The game was first set for October. But Napoli took local health authority advice and stayed at home after two Covid positives in their squad. The league postponed the game…45 minutes AFTER its scheduled kick-off, with Juve waiting at their Allianz Stadium home for opposition that never came. No…really.
Defeat on Wednesday could have got Pirlo sacked. So, with Juve already three Covid-stricken men down (above), pragmatism and self-preservation changed his tune. And Covid rule-breaker Dybala headed the winner in Juve’s 2-1 triumph. Because of course he did.
But the best quote about the rule breaches probably came from the self-declared Juve fan who grassed the players up informed the authorities of the gathering, and sounded frustrated that Juve’s bid for ten titles in-a-row has gone haywire. “Maybe if the players focused more on the pitch instead of going to parties,” the fan suggested, ”they might be in a better position in the table.”
No talk of shame, however, when Rangers manager Steven Gerrard moaned incoherently at the bans for the club’s quintet of Covid-rule breachers. The five received six-match holidays from a Scottish FA disciplinary panel for breaching SFA Covid rules and failing to “act in the best interests” of football. And, unaccustomed to rules applying to them, Rangers appealed, with a hearing set for 20th April.
Gerrard thought Scotland manager Steve Clarke would not be “very happy” at teenager Nathan Patterson’s “big ban.” Why Clarke would give a flying fcuk wasn’t clear. Scotland under-21 right-back Patterson has only played THIRTEEN times for Rangers. And his ban would have been served before Scotland’s seniors play again.
But Gerrard thought that Patterson being “one of the brightest (right-back) prospects ever” should matter to a disciplinary panel. “The kid is going to play for Scotland and all of a sudden the SFA wants to ban him. I don’t get it,” he said…apparently seriously. And he insisted that the SFA should have considered the players’ ages and “how damaging it could be” for their careers.
So, players should get away with rule breaches if they are good? And/or young? The non-Patterson rule-breachers should get different bans because they have different abilities and ages? A four-match ban as a teenager, who is not yet a first-team regular, could damage a career? All sufficiently nonsensical to suggest a late April Fool joke. And another indication of Rangers’ damaging sense of entitlement. Because Patterson COULD be damaged if he only discovers at another club that the rules apply to him too.
Meanwhile, fans are coming back in England, due to the improving virus outlook, clubs’ desperation for gate receipts and government populism. The government’s nine “pilot” events in its “Events Research Programme” includes three Wembley matches; the Leicester City/Southampton FA Cup semi-final, the Manchester City/Spurs EFL Cup Final and the FA Cup Final. The semi will be attended only by 4,000 local residents. While 8,000 will attend the EFL Cup final. Both teams will get 2,000 tickets, with the rest for “groups including” locals and, to thank them for their “incredible” pandemic service, “NHS staff.” But logistical details still require…well…details.
Fans may require “Covid passports.” But City fans will reportedly require “Covid-secure transport,” from the North-West, presumably based on the false assumption that all non-Mancunian Manchester fans support United. Even I know Londoners who were “there when (City) were sh*t” on a Friday night at Fulham in the third-tier in August 1998…when they lost 3-0. “I can’t go into the details because it’s still in train,” EFL CEO Trevor Birch accidently punned on Wednesday. “There are a lot of stakeholders involved in the discussions.”
But that train needs to be a Pendolino. Last Sunday, three weeks before kick-off, Tottenham’s supporters trust (THST) website posted 36 questions about the occasion, covering every conceivable detail about football match organisation. As they rightly say, “in a fight against a global pandemic, there is far more at stake than how a football match goes ahead.” So for Birch et al to publicly seem so ill-prepared at such an advanced stage is alarming, especially as the THST “have learned that the EFL does not think fans are ‘relevant stakeholders’.”
In contrast, Uefa has gone into immense detail, setting a 7th April deadline for Euro 2020/1 host cities to guarantee fan admission. Bilbao and Dublin have missed this deadline, and further information is also sought from Munich and the putative venue for the tournament’s curtain-raiser, Rome. However, Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin said “no city would automatically drop out” if they couldn’t accommodate fans, presumably anxious-and-a-half to avoid any logistical nightmares beyond those already provided by the multi-host-city format.
Ireland’s FA (FAI) told Uefa that it could not “at this point provide assurances on minimum spectator levels.” Spain’s footie federation blamed the Basque government for Bilbao’s problems (the Spanish Civil War is still being fought inside some heads, it seems). On a more positive note, though, Hampden Park is fit for bigger crowds than have attended some domestic Cup semi-finals there not involving Celtic or Rangers. Uefa’s Executive Committee will decide all host cities Euros fate on 19th April.
The bottom line remains the bottom line, though. Many clubs’ 2019/20 financial results have cited “Covid-related losses,” the latest being EPL medium-flyers Aston Villa, who have attributed £36m of their £99m losses last season to the pandemic. And 2020/21 losses will likely be more “Covid-related.” So, though the latest English League Covid test results show that the current semi-lockdown/vaccine combo is combatting the covidiocy still permeating football, wealth may again trump health in determining how soon football’s post-Covid future will now be.