Michael Walker: Football must seize the opportunity in Covid-19 crisis

Uefa will be required to play leading role as game deals with enormity of coronavirus outbreak

Atletico Madrid fans celebrate the victory over Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday night. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images

We are in a moment of crisis. Football has gone into lockdown. It is a precaution, it is sensible, it is worrying. But amid the anxiety came a reminder from BBC World that the Chinese word for crisis consists of two characters – danger and opportunity.

This was mentioned at the start of the week by a reporter standing in a deserted street and – as comparatively unimportant as it is – the football landscape will soon be equally de-populated.

As people and governments wake up to the full implications of the coronavirus pandemic, football has gradually, possibly belatedly, shut down.

It was an enthralling game at Anfield on Wednesday night, rarely can Liverpool have played so well for so little – how good were Sadio Mane and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain?


But the significance of the 120 minutes may well stretch beyond the necessity of a good goalkeeper and the skill and luck of Atletico Madrid’s defence. These were football matters discussed earnestly.

Football’s capacity to see itself as the beginning and end of a world is not new, but even so, in a couple of weeks, even football might be asking how it consented to Liverpool-Atletico going ahead in front of 52,267 people at a tight ground like Anfield. Was this not dangerous?

The happy Atletico fans landing back in Madrid on Thursday morning were met with the news that their rivals Real Madrid had gone into quarantine after one of the club’s basketball players had tested positive for Covid-19. The basketball team shares the Valdebebas training ground with the football team and while Valdebebas is a vast facility, there will inevitably be day-to-day contact between sportsmen and women.

This sounded a measured response and yet it might be too late.

La Liga then announced that it would be stopping for the next two weeks, which means Atletico fans have plenty of time to reflect on Anfield.

But what if some of them begin to fall ill? What if it turns out the trip to Anfield was as dangerous as some feared? The match will become memorable for more than Jan Oblak’s defiance.

This will be grim if it happens. Over 3,000 Atletico fans were still huddled together in the Anfield Road end 25 minutes after the final whistle.

By Thursday morning the medical significance of Covid-19 had almost fully permeated football. The Bosnian FA requested their Euro 2020 playoff against Northern Ireland be postponed. The Danish FA announced that all football would be suspended. At lunchtime came the news the Slovakian FA had asked for the Ireland playoff game to be postponed.

All across Europe football authorities were closing down the organised game and on Friday, after the Mikel Arteta revelation, English, Scottish – and Irish – football joined in. At the same time in Madrid, the mayor recommended the closure of cafes and revoked licences for terraces.

All the while, administrators trembled. These are not the Darwinians who appear to run Downing Street, but they are people who know the value of contracts, economic as well as sporting.

Every time a league or association draws up a television or sponsorship contract, it includes penalty clauses for various forms of non-delivery, partial or total. In the case of England’s Premier League, the billions from Sky, BT and overseas are dependent on television slots being filled every week. It has become an interdependent relationship.

The cancellation of a league season would have huge financial ramifications for the Premier League – which is made up of its clubs. Just as they receive money from a central pot, they would have to contribute to it should television and sponsors pursue repayment, as they will.

That hits each club individually, with the weakest in trouble. Collectively it will also reduce the ability and future willingness to fund things such as the parachute payments and grants to non-League and grassroots football. There is a serious danger to clubs the lower you go.

At the other end of the scale, however, there is an opportunity for Uefa to wise up.

There may have been good intentions based on inclusivity about Euro 2020 being played in multiple cities, but it was a selection made by committee folk who do not pay for their accommodation or travel, unlike supporters.

Logically, shifting Euro 2020 and making it ‘Euro 2021’ would be a solution. There would be logistical issues of course, but those are there anyway – the opening fixture of Euro 2020 is in Rome.

The idea of playing the finals across Europe could be shelved – somewhere such as Italy in 2021 could stage the tournament and help its economy.

Moving the tournament, as is being mooted thankfully, would bring breathing space to the 2020 calendar. Domestic leagues, and the Champions and Europa Leagues, can be given time to finish.

None of this is ideal of course. There are sure to be opponents, those who consider the calendar immovable. The women’s Euro 2021 in England is part of that, but it begins on July 7th. ‘Euro 2020’ would be over by then.

And remember, when Qatar came calling with cash, wriggle room was found for a World Cup in Europe’s winter.

Uefa, moreover, have already expanded the finals, just as Fifa have expanded the World Cup. Fifa want to develop their Club World Cup, too – meaning ever more games – while Uefa’s Nations League is also to grow, with matches played next summer. Moving the finals would rid us of those.

Elsewhere, Concacaf is planning expansion, with Asian and African federations looking at ways of competing with all of this.

There is just more and more football and Jürgen Klopp’s words about player burnout continue to go unheeded.

Less is more, there is an opportunity in this crisis to remember that.

Manolo Gabbiadini celebrates scoring Southampton’s second goal during the League Cup final against Manchester United at Wembley Stadium in February 2017. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Best wishes Manolo

In the midst of Thursday’s stream came news from Italy that Manolo Gabbiadini has tested positive for coronavirus. Gabbiadini is 28 and is back in Serie A with Sampdoria, having spent the previous two years with Southampton.

He was good to watch and will be remembered here for his two goals in the 2017 League Cup final at Wembley against Manchester United. Both demonstrated Gabbiadini’s penalty-box sharpness, particularly the second.

Having been 2-0 down, those goals made it 2-2. Southampton were the better team that afternoon but United had Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he also scored two, including the header to make it 3-2 to United. It was described as “Jose Mourinho’s first trophy at United”, as if many more would follow.

But Gabbiadini was as much of a story, because at 0-0, he had a legal goal ruled offside. He should have had a hat-trick.

It would be crass to say coronavirus puts all that into perspective, so let’s not. Let’s just wish him well.