All over Spain, professional football is taking the first, tentative steps toward its return. Clubs with training grounds have sterilised them, reorganised them, prepared for an influx of staff and worked out how to maintain the two-metre distancing that is still obligatory within Spain's de-escalation phase zero.
The vast majority of those wonderful footballers whose skills we've been missing so badly during these brutal weeks of the coronavirus lockdown will now begin to trot around in tiny, hopeful clusters of four or five. Most will be subjected to COVID-19 testing and most, naturally, will submit nervously. Larger squads will probably train in shifts, split into morning, afternoon and evening groups. That's how the government restrictions demand that things happen -- for the next couple of weeks, at least. There can be no huge conglomerations of players and staff in one sporting facility at the same time.
The whole exercise is tentative, divisive and precarious, but it is a hopeful first sign of something growing back from the scorched earth of total shutdown and confinement to casa. Metaphorically, it's like the budding of tiny flowers and leaves on branches after a long winter, a gentle hint that spring is coming -- lovely but fragile. Just like with Mother Nature, we have to accept that all of that colour, optimism and timid good health can be destroyed by sudden inclemency, a tempest that blows before the positive things have properly taken root.
COVID-19 clearly still holds the potential to become that tempest once again. Spain aims for La Liga to resume from June 12, with gradually increasing group training across the six weeks between now and then. This much we know, but there are very few absolutes about this early version of the new normal.
So, should this be happening?
The rate of deaths directly attributed to this ugly virus has been dropping in Spain, and as this partial return to work in the football world begins, it's lower than it has been since the lockdown began in this country. Across the nation next week, many shops and businesses are scheduled to open, albeit with restrictions: You can eat and drink at a bar or restaurant that has an outdoor terrace, you can manufacture a car and you can sell clothes. Why shouldn't football follow suit?
The government's relevant departments have given the go-ahead, again under certain conditions, and this industry -- just like the vast majority of others -- fundamentally requires an immediate injection of revenue if it is to survive in a recognisable form. But two key factors seem to be both unclear and simultaneously of primary importance.
Does the health sector in Spain, no longer as overwhelmed as a few weeks ago, have serious and well-articulated objections to professional sport beginning to move toward resumption? Right now the answer appears to be no. But if that changes, if it can be demonstrated that football's resumption is premature or that the models of the Netherlands and France, where the domestic seasons have been declared finished, must be followed, then that needs to dictate opinion.
The second element that is utterly vital, but unclear, at this point is whether the football community itself is ready professionally, psychologically or physically -- or convinced morally. Football has always had a terrible habit of presuming that once its players are paid a salary, they are mere commodities. It's not always front of mind that footballers are treated by clubs, governing bodies, sponsors and broadcasters as if they were servants. Conscious or subconscious, the effect is the same and must be avoided -- now more than ever.
This pandemic lockdown has seen some awful squabbling between La Liga, the Spanish FA and the players' union -- some of which was put to bed temporarily thanks to a summit meeting between the government and football's two governing bodies. The meeting was productive, progress was made and a temporary truce has held between the FA and La Liga across the subsequent fortnight. I found it informative that the players' union wasn't asked to be present.
Since that meeting, the union's leader, David Aganzo, has raised some very good points after canvassing his appropriate members in professional clubs around this vast nation.
How often will these players, who've been dormant for longer than at any stage in their careers other than while badly injured, be asked to play each week in order to complete the 2019-20 season once football restarts? The central point is that most sports physios expect there to be more muscle injuries and strains after seven weeks without normal training, and that's before the inevitable suggestion that it's OK for footballers to play matches every three days for several weeks. That's a schedule known to be far from optimal at the best of times. What's more, direct-contact physio and massage at training centres will remain forbidden, meaning more problems for strained muscles and sinews.
Aganzo also pointed out that not all his members are willing to accept the risk of training, reaching full-contact preparation and then playing opposition teams competitively for fear of somehow contracting the virus and carrying it home to a young child, pregnant partner, unwell relative or aged parent. It's a point of view that is easy to understand.
Suso's fear, as explained to Radio Marca, is: "I've got a baby on the way, health comes first. If I went to training and brought the virus back to my pregnant wife, it's something for which I'd never forgive myself. We'll have to see what the government say, but I'm not sure that we'll be able to finish the season."
Ramos admitted that he was "desperate to get back to playing and to win the league," but he conceded he was monitoring a complicated and evolving situation and would make decisions based on government information.
Rakitic was much more blunt and much more in tune with Javier Tebas, the Liga chief who has been progressive, organised, tireless and articulate about the challenges. Rakitic told Marca: "I want to play again, obviously while facing the most minimal risk possible, but it's not going to be 100% safe. We share some of the risks other workers face when going back to their shops or offices, and I accept that risk. I want footballers to be an example, to show that we can do this, together, and I want football to start to give enjoyment to all the heroic people who are seeing us through this."
This is a good way to begin the "new normal" that must be in place before the world's greatest, most beautiful and most popular sport resumes. All three of these positions must be catered to without the many footballers who line up on Suso's side being trampled underfoot.
Must a footballer under contract be obligated to return if he or she feels that their personal situation is too risky, even once the best provisions have been made by their club, the opposition clubs, La Liga and public health authorities? My strong opinion is: No. These are utterly extraordinary times, unique to many of us. There simply has to be scope for some people, in good faith, not feeling able to move as quickly as others.
For example, does every professional club have insurance that includes pandemic protection, meaning that if one of their staff gets gravely ill (or worse) during the return to competition, there is comprehensive financial cover? I doubt that. Perhaps this can be gradually accounted for, but is it watertight across professional football in Spain right now? Unlikely.
So when, and under what circumstances, would it be generally accepted that the experiment to return to competition has failed? When and if every club or their environs were suddenly suffering an outbreak of new COVID-19 cases? Or if a single region (in the way that Lombardy was initially so much worse than the rest of Italy and the way in which Madrid and Catalunya have seen infection and mortality rates that dwarf other regions) is increasingly badly affected in June and July? Or has the experiment failed when just one of La Liga's high-profile managers or world-famous footballers gets sick, or worse?
Not only aren't there existing protocols to answer these questions, but the situation is so new, so difficult and so fluid that until something serious happens, despite all precautions, we truly won't know either what the wider public opinion thinks or feels or how the football community, players and staff will act. And the new normal will of course include matches behind closed doors, possibly right into 2021.
So while I generally feel that Spain's tentative progress toward restarting football is neither lunacy nor wilfully optimistic, I'm incurably cynical about the human capacity for stupidity. When the general public were allowed specific timetabled freedom to leave their houses and exercise for the first time in seven weeks, last weekend, there were, of course, examples of total idiocy. On day one of this "freedom," 119 people across Spain were arrested for flagrantly disregarding the rules aimed at stopping the virus spread, while the police reported more than 16,000 people for a variety of fines and sanctions for similar offences.
What hope have we of restarting football in June, even should everything else go acceptably well and there not being crowds of egotistical fools congregating around the outside stadiums where matches are played? Zero, I'd say.
That doesn't mean that life shouldn't recommence and society shouldn't fight back. It just means that we can be 100% sure that football's new normal will inevitably contain many of its old peccadilloes: self-interest, financial avarice, stupidity, fanaticism, mistakes and deeply divided opinions about what's right and wrong. But we can be equally sure that the inspirational, beautiful and wonderful in football will, as always, outweigh the deplorable.