We're no closer to knowing when soccer might return to action given the global reaction to slowing the coronavirus outbreak, but there's still a lot happening in the broader soccer world. Gab Marcotti reacts to the main talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Football needs creative ideas, thinking in order to resume
So much of the focus at the top end of football is about how and when the sport will resume. You get that. There are TV contracts that need to be honoured, and leagues, fearful of economic damage, are pressing ahead wanting to "finish the season" even if it means playing into July, August or beyond. And, we're told, for fans starved of live sports, having football back -- even without crowds, just on their TV or phones -- would be a tremendous boon and give entire nations a psychological lift. Plus, of course, there's all those who insist on the integrity of the game and the importance of finishing a season before you start a new one.
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Let's dissect those arguments one by one, shall we?
The psychological lift? Like most of you reading this, I've been a sports fan all my life, and I make a living talking and writing about sports, so I'm not going to argue with this point. It's been weird and unsettling being without it. But frankly, it's no more weird and unsettling than the entire experience of being on lockdown.
The TV money? Yes, this is a big thing. Most clubs have budgeted for it and many have already spent it. We're generally talking about between 10% and 15% of a club's annual budget -- though at some clubs, it's a lot more -- that would be lost if the remainder of the season isn't played (and broadcast). That's a big unknown, and by the way, in many leagues (including the Premier League) broadcasters have already paid up for the season and, thus far, nobody has asked for their money back. So yes, there is an imperative to play the games behind closed doors for TV purposes, but let's remind ourselves: we're talking about a handful of leagues, often just the top-flight in no more than a dozen or so countries.
The integrity of the leagues? This argument, on the other hand, is harder to swallow.
"We don't want artificial means of deciding who wins the league, who gets into the Champions League, who gets relegated and promoted," said Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson over the weekend. Sure, but guess what? Artificial means are already the best you can hope for. Playing behind closed doors with restrictions on training and travel is already "artificial." That ship has sailed and, frankly, highfalutin arguments about the "sanctity" of the football pyramid (from the Premier League at the top to semi-professional, recreational and/or non-league clubs at the bottom) and "integrity" of the league seem a little tone-deaf in a time of crisis, particularly when the very survival of clubs, mostly outside the top flight, is at stake.
It feels as if too many actors here -- leagues, clubs, federations, players' unions -- are failing to see the big picture. Playing behind closed doors for the benefit of television may be worthwhile if the sums are big enough, but that only applies at the top end of the pyramid. Below that tier, it becomes a question of economics.
In League One, for example, assuming (and it's a big one) that broadcasters ask for their money back for the roughly 25% of fixtures yet to be played, each team will lose around $180,000 (£160,000). At some point, you've got to weigh that against the costs of staging games behind closed doors: travel, housing, testing, medical support, extra staffing costs. Then there's the issue of players' wages.
Right now, a number of lower division clubs in England can furlough their players, meaning the government picks up 80% of their salaries, up to a maximum of $3,000 a month. (There are equivalent programs in some countries, including France, Spain and Italy, with similar mechanisms.) But the minute they start training and playing, they have to come off the furlough program, which means the club is back on the hook for their wages. This despite the fact that there will be no new income, apart from that TV payment that they might get anyway, since games will be behind closed doors. And that's before you get into the issue of the June 30 cliff edge. Any club that plays into July will have to extend the contracts and loans of players whose deals end on June 30, and that means more costs while matchday revenues remain at zero.
Simply put, there will be a lot of clubs for whom it simply makes no economic sense to play behind closed doors past June 30 (and, for some, even before that). And there won't be much of a sporting justification, either. If, like Bolton Wanderers, you're 21 points from safety with 10 games to go, do you really need to keep playing in empty stadiums? For who? For what?
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There are plenty of clubs in this situation, teams with nothing to play for who would actually lose even more money and further jeopardize their future if they had to play in these conditions. Why force them to play?
Ah, but what about the integrity of the league and issues like promotion/relegation? There's no perfect solution here, just a bunch of imperfect options. Like adding teams in promotion spots to the division above without relegating anybody. Or not promoting anyone, but figuring out some sort of financial compensation whereby the side that would have been relegated compensates the side that would have gone up. Or, perhaps, vice versa. Or maybe you figure out some sort of play-off head-to-head format for clubs to settle important outstanding matters (like promotion/relegation) on the pitch behind closed doors, but leave others out of it.
The point is we're in an extreme and uncharted emergency situation. At stake is the financial well-being, if not the very existence, of many historic clubs. Football can do whatever it deems best to protect the majority of clubs. For the Premier League, La Liga and others with lots of TV cash at stake, that may well mean playing behind closed doors and doing so for much of the summer. For the vast majority of clubs below the uber-elite, odds are that's not the case and doing so will simply mean spending money they can't afford to spend with little or no return.
What we need are creative ideas here that can adapt to the reality of the pandemic, not hard-and-fast notions about "league integrity." We're beyond that. Anybody failing to understand this hasn't been paying attention.
Bundesliga's bold plan on how to resume their season
The German Bundesliga, of course, are bucking the trend. Their chief executive, Christian Seifert, told The New York Times last week that they hope to return in the first half of May (May 2, May 9 and May 16 are three proposed dates for the resumption of play). Games in both the top flight and second division will be played behind closed doors and all those involved -- 240 per match (including players, stadium officials, media, TV production folk and referees) -- will be tested every three days. The aim is to wrap everything up by June 30.
It's a hugely ambitious plan.
Germany have far more resources to combat and treat COVID-19, and they've been averaging more than 100,000 tests a day with relative ease. The plan would require close to 100,000 tests over two months just for those involved, but Seifert seems confident they have the capacity to do it without affecting the efforts of the country's frontline health workers. However, as former Eintracht Frankfurt striker Jan Age Fjortoft told us on the Gab + Juls podcast Monday, two key stakeholders have yet to agree to the plan. One is the German government, who haven't weighed in yet and are still assessing the situation. The other, of course, is the coronavirus itself: we don't know where we'll be in a month's time.
Still, it's good to have a plan and it's better still to have the resources to be able to put it into action, if at all possible.
Why did Sepp Blatter's 2015 case get dropped in 2020?
Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former FIFA president, recorded a rare victory on Saturday when the Swiss Attorney General's office revealed it was dropping a four-and-a-half-year-old case against him. Blatter had been accused of knowingly underselling regional broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup to curry favour with certain Caribbean nations, led by disgraced former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner.
What's striking here is that the documents in question are 15 years old: they show that the rights were sold for $600,000 to the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), who then sold them on for $20 million to a Jamaican broadcaster. (FIFA later claimed it had agreed to split any profits 50-50 with the CFU.) Warner himself said -- in 2011 -- that the sweetheart deal was designed to make sure Caribbean nations continued to support Blatter's bid to be re-elected as FIFA president. You can't help but wonder what the Swiss prosecutors have been doing all this time and what has changed since 2015 to persuade them they no longer had a case against Blatter.
In case you're wondering, Blatter is banned from all football activities until December 21, 2021, when he'll be 85 years old. Oh, and Swiss prosecutors are still investigating him for another case, the $2 million payment to Michel Platini in 2011. Don't expect him to return to the scene triumphantly just yet.
Football Leaks update
Rui Pinto, the man behind the Football Leaks revelations, is now under house arrest in Portugal as he awaits trial for attempted blackmail. In case you missed it, Football Leaks was a massive data dump of confidential documents and emails, some of them no more than curiosities (commissions paid to Mino Raiola in Paul Pogba's transfer from Juventus to Manchester United and Gareth Bale's transfer contract) and some of them leading to far more serious matters, from the Cristiano Ronaldo rape investigation to allegations against Manchester City, which led to their two-year ban from UEFA competitions for violating Financial Fair Play.
Rui Pinto has always maintained that he's not a hacker, but that "people on the inside" have passed him documents. It's a statement that's tough to believe given the sheer breadth of the data and, in any case, Portuguese authorities are taking no chances: he's banned from using computers and having access to the internet while on house arrest. Given the fear he strikes in many in the football world, you'd imagine the microwave and TV remote control are off-limits as well.