The Game That Forgot It Was A Game

by | Apr 11, 2020

When the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919 first hit in January 1918, there was no professional football being played that was worthy of the name. The Football League and the Football Association had already incurred the wrath of the public and the media by continuing to play throughout the 1914/15 season, ending with the Khaki Cup Final of 1915. Only the formation of a “footballer’s battalion” managed to  spare its reputation.

When a second wave of infection started to hit in August of the same year, there was still no football. The second wave of the pandemic turned out to be even deadlier than the first. With parliament in apparent denial over the scale of the crisis – the matter was not even mentioned there until the end of October – 226,000 people were killed in three months, in the UK alone, mostly adults under the age of 65.

By the time the Football League finally resumed in August 1919 the pandemic had finally blown itself out, but the death toll around the world had been horrific, to a point that even trying to count the dead was practically impossible. There have been estimates that, around the world, as many as half a billion people contracted the virus. Between 17m and 50m are believed to have been killed by it worldwide, but the numbers may have been considerably higher.

The world is a very different place in 2020. We already understand Covid-19 better than the physicians of the time understood Spanish Flu, and the world isn’t currently gripped in a global death grip of the nature of the First World War. We are shutting down, to arguably the greatest extent that we can. Some governments have been slow to react, and others seem to have been in denial over the scale of the pandemic, but the number of countries that are doing little to nothing about it at all can now be counted on the fingers of two hands.

Professional football has also changed beyond recognition, in comparison with 1918. Not only was the game not already on an enforced sabbatical at the time that this virus first struck, but the very nature of the game itself has mutated beyond all recognition. Over the last few weeks, there has been considerable conjecture about how the professional game can survive this lockdown, and one thing that has been thrown into sharp focus has been the game’s hopeless dependence on money from outside, be it from the munificence – or speculation – of club owners to broadcasters and sponsors.

There has been little to no solidarity between clubs or even leagues, to the point that it has become difficult to talk about “the game” in any meaningful sense. Even within individual divisions, the financial disparity between the wealthiest clubs and the least wealthy is such that it’s entirely possible to argue that there may be no way of reaching an agreement that works for everybody. Even within the Championship, just one division of 24 clubs, the biggest have wage budgets that are multiple times those of the smallest, with clubs relegated into it from the Premier League having parachute payments to further accentuate that inequality.

Clubs are contractually tied to contracts with players that cost them thousands of pounds a week while the leagues, which represent them at a collective level, are in turn in hock to broadcasters to the tune of billions of pounds for coverage of matches that cannot be played now, and may not be played, ever. Increasing amounts of money have been sluicing around professional football for the last thirty years or so now, but the number of clubs with anything like a “rainy day fund” seems to have been pretty close to zero.

In a rush to maximise the amount of money that they can make from broadcasters, the game’s governing bodies have squeezed and squeezed the football calendar to a point at which it’s just about impossible to fit any more in. This year’s Champions League final, for example, was due to take place in Istanbul on the 30th of May. The start of this summer’s (now postponed) European Championships was due for the 11th of June. A week and half. And, of course, both the Champions League and the European Championships are scheduled and organised by the same body, UEFA. But this gives it a built-in fragility, as well, with more money having to be repaid for more unplayed matches. The bill for the Premier League alone, we are told, will comfortably top £1bn. But without there being any natural gaps in the schedule to make up this shortfall, the blue sky thinking for how to avoid widespread cancellation and the enormous bill that would come with it have looked increasingly outlandish.

The upshot of all of this is a state of paralysis and financial hardship which threatens to wreak havoc upon the game in ways that would have been considered inconceivable by most just a few months ago. At a time when it is feared that unemployment in a broader sense may reach as many as six million people, it might be argued that this is something of a trifling matter, but football holds a unique place at the heart of our cultural lives which will be vital in maintaining social cohesion once things attempt to get back to normal, whatever “normality” turns out to look like, in a few months or maybe a year’s time.

Whether the Premier League even could ‘save’ the divisions below it is very much open to question, but the money that has been offered as a ‘stimulus package’ for the lower divisions is certainly not, as it has been repeatedly presented in the media, a ‘gift’. The £125m that has been offered is an advance on next season’s solidarity payments, and spread across 72 Football League clubs, it’s unlikely that it will go very far, though it may go further than the £2m offered to the clubs of the three divisions of the National League, who will only receive a few thousand pounds each.

And it’s entirely plausible that even these payments will end up looking more like downpayments on colonisation rather than gestures of goodwill towards the entire game. We all hope that the world that will emerge from this disaster will be better than the one that we inhabited beforehands, but we also know that there are plenty of disaster capitalists who are watching current events unfold with the facial expressions of foxes sizing up a henhouse at the moment.

Inequalities and structural failures within our society have already been glaringly exposed, and football is no exception to this. For all the hope that everybody with a stake in football will use these weeks of lockdown as an opportunity to pause and reflect on how we could make our world better and more equitable for everyone, though, there remains the residual belief that those with power and money really love power and money, and that they will not give it up without a fight.

But there will still be football. So long as there is grass upon which matches can be played and people who want to watch it, there will be football. And it might well be that there will a lot of people who find that they cannot go back to the elite level of the game. There was widespread revulsion at some Premier League clubs availing themselves of the government’s furlough scheme in order to stop paying their lowest paid staff while continuing to pay their multi-millionaire players in full.

One of those clubs, Liverpool, reversed its decision after a few days of being hammered on both social and mainstream media, but this decision couldn’t mask the fact that the club made this decision in the first place, and that to do the right thing is simply not a decision that you get a do-over on. You only get the one chance to make the right decision, and subsequent reversals can only be considered to be PR exercises. Liverpool’s backtracking places them higher in the food chain than, say, Tottenham Hotspur or Newcastle United, but this all feels rather like a group of bald men fighting over a comb.

There is an increasingly effluent stench coming from professional football at the moment. At the highest level, clubs have already lost the PR battle, and below this sympathy for these extraordinary circumstances is tempered by the fact that almost all professional clubs have been, to a lesser or greater extent, complicit in a world of ever rising wage demands, squandering money in the pursuit of ultimately meaningless ‘success’ whilst failing to maintain adequate cash reserves to protect themselves.

Football long sought to repurpose itself as a business rather than as a game, and these chastened times have lifted the curtain on the fact that it has replaced the notion of sport with the reality of being a badly-run business. The last few weeks have allowed time to analyse the state of the finances of our clubs, and the results have been dire. A substantial proportion of Premier League clubs have been losing money hand over fist despite being the beneficiaries of television money of which their predecessors could only have dreamt. Championship clubs are financial basket case, building a bonfire of financial losses and debt on the speculation that everything will be okay if only they could get themselves into the gilded top twenty.

At a time when solidarity between clubs, leagues and governing bodies could never have been more important, everybody is grabbing for themselves. Clubs have spent years packaging what would under any other circumstances be considered basic human kindness as PR exercises, lapping up applause for tiny acts of community work. But the curtain on their true values has now been lifted, and the decision now rests with supporters over whether these clubs and these owners are something that we can continue to live with. As the weeks have passed, it has been noticeable that the number of people on social media saying “I really miss the football” has dropped sharply. We do miss the game and we do miss the spectacle. Whether we miss the structures that have grown around it, though, is a somewhat different question with, quite possibly, very different answers.