Europeans need to reboot football already. What happened this week in Switzerland is proof; more than 1,000 fans gathered to watch an unofficial match that authorities had banned. Faced with the fans’ efforts, the police settled the matter by taking away the goals. In Spain, football was banned from the streets, so people played it on the rooftops.
No one questions that saving lives in the health crisis is important. But now that the confinement is over, millions of football fans want to see the ball rolling again, and the industry needs it. The approximately 28.4 billion euros that European football moves every year is at stake.
So far, only one European competition has returned: the German Bundesliga. On May 16, the referee’s whistle broke the long sporting silence, as the coronavirus had put competitions on standby.
Rebooted Football Isn’t the Same
However, nothing is as was. The hiatus had transformed the athletes’ bodies: On the day they returned to play, 14 were injured, while 18 others could not even start the game, suffering muscular issues from previous training sessions. Almost all the teams used up the five substitutions allowed by the Bundesliga to avoid injuries, but it wasn’t enough. Most of the athletes finished the games in poor condition.
In this soccer reboot, the thing that surprises most is the silence. The stadiums are empty in Germany. Slaps, boots pounding the ball, the rumble of the ground when a player falls, a painful scream from a foul, the odd insult — this is the new ambient sound. Players on the bench must wear masks, and there are only four ball boys. Teams must access the pitch separately, and water bottles have name tags for each player.
The new rules do not apply only on the pitch, where players shaking hands or hugging each other is strictly forbidden, but begin inside the hotel. Players stay in single rooms and are responsible for cleaning, eating sanitized food, and taking COVID-19 tests the day before the match.
In light of the results of the first matches, the new Bundesliga has disregarded the so-called home-field factor altogether. The home team no longer plays with an advantage as it no longer has fan support. This is showing in the results, and will no doubt be the case in any other sport where the public plays an important role.
Football Leagues Around the World Navigate Restarting
The new soccer rules invented in Germany have guided all other leagues and competitions. All over Europe, sports will take off in the next few days. With rules similar to those of the Bundesliga, La Liga returns in Spain on June 8. The Italian league, along with Spain, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic, will presumably return June 13 or 20. The British Premier League will return June 12 behind closed doors, of course, and shrouded in controversy over several players testing positive during the pre-season mini training sessions.
In Portugal, the league will return June 4. The Portuguese, among those that have best managed the pandemic, will restart play with a system that has been designed between the Portuguese League and the General Directorate of Health, and will serve as a “model for the resumption of other economic activities, with the aim that this professional competition should provide an example of best practice, made compulsory by this pandemic,” according to its authorities.
In Europe, the exception is France, which, under pressure from the football associations, was quick to announce its league would not return until September. France is now finding that many clubs and related institutions have announced a risk of bankruptcy if a return to normal is not in the cards.
Elsewhere, in Argentina, the government wants football to be one of the last things to return to normal. It won’t happen before June. At the moment, it’s not clear what the conditions will be, nor if there will be promotion and relegation in the Super League. In Mexico, the return could be delayed further, after eight Santos Laguna players tested positive for the Wuhan virus.
In the United States, the first professional sport to return to normal will not be the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, or Major League Soccer (MLS), but the National Women’s Soccer League, which will start June 27. MLS is still suspended for renewable periods. This period expires June 8, but will most likely be extended again. Meanwhile, the Bundesliga and Premier League are advising MLS on what the new conditions might be like when they return to competition.
As for international competitions, the 2020 European Championship and the Copa America have been postponed and will be played between June 11 and July 11 in 2021. The championship’s name will still be Euro 2020, however, so as not to upset its 60th anniversary plans. The Union of European Football Associations is keeping the international club and national team championships on hold.
In Europe, football is an undisputed risk factor, due to the accumulation of supporters in a small space. Reopening stadiums to the public is not on the horizon. The decision not to suspend the Liverpool-Atlético de Madrid match on March 11, when Spain allowed nearly 3,000 fans to travel to England, led to 41 additional deaths, according to a study by Edge Health, the institution that analyzes data from the British National Health Service.
Sports Are Bigger Than Entertainment
Football is more than a sport. It is a feeling, an outlet, and a mass sociological phenomenon. It’s no coincidence that the social communist government in Spain has pushed so hard to speed up the return of the league: As long as the public can refocus on their favorite pastime, tensions against the government will surely be reduced. Communists and populists are experts at this.
Be that as it may, group sports competitions allow fans to identify with a crowd, escape reality for a while, and experience a rollercoaster of pain and elation. The psychological power of sports should not be underestimated.
“The hormonal response is not just unadulterated reflex,” says Eric Simons in “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.” “What we humans do is adulterate our reflexes. Whether you have an outcome-related testosterone increase depends entirely, researchers say, on that individual psychology.”
If the experiment of the European football leagues’ rebooting goes well, we will soon be able to reduce our coronavirus anxiety levels by enjoying our favorite sporting events.
Translated by Joel Dalmau.