NEW DELHI: What has made this lockdown even more difficult to deal with is the absence of live sports, including football. Without their weekly dosage of English Premier League, La Liga and UEFA Champions League action, life is not the same for both fans and players. There has been a lot of talk regarding whether football leagues should resume or consider this season voided. This daily spoke to former England and Liverpool goalkeeper David James to understand the various implications of the pandemic on the footballing ecosystem. Excerpts...
How are things in England and how difficult is it to deal with this lockdown from a professional footballer’s point of view?
Things are very quiet. Fortunately, a vast majority of the public are abiding by the rules set by the government. We are having to stay indoors and it is the same for athletes who are doing their training within the four walls of their houses. Not going to the training facility on a daily basis will take some used to, obviously. It almost mirrors scenes post end of the season. There will be challenges like not doing the football side of things regularly while players also need to keep themselves occupied mentally.
Do you see a spate of injuries occurring if and when the season resumes?
I don’t think injuries will be a major problem. Football clubs around Europe will not allow players to play without being match-fit which means a basic level of conditioning time will be provided. We also need to remember that most players have been keeping fit during this lockdown.
The major impact, according to me, will be the quality of football on display as a condensed period of action is the most likely scenario. Around nine games are left in the Premier League and if authorities decide to hold a match every three days, it will be extremely difficult for the top teams to juggle such fixture congestion considering their European engagements.
We might see a scenario wherein clubs might employ two different teams using academy and reserve players in a bid to share the workload. We have already seen the same from Liverpool and it would be a risk-free strategy.
Should the various leagues be finished or be considered null and void? What about the possibility of playing in empty stadiums?
In my opinion, considering the season as null and void should be the last resort. Health is obviously of paramount importance and government advice should be followed. There are possible strategies like playing in a single stadia while all teams quarantine their players properly. In the worst-case scenario, an algorithm might be established which would consider the probability of points based on whatever amount of the season has been completed (almost 75 per cent).
There has to be a winner and European places have to be decided to maintain the integrity of football all around. If the climate dictates so (no fans), that should be done. Football is all about fans and the atmosphere they bring to a game. But in these unprecedented times, I’m sure we will see a greater degree of understanding from a fan’s point of view if that is not possible.
To a certain extent, supporters all around the globe will be pleased as long as matches are telecast, which would, in turn, allow clubs, the parent body and the broadcasters to go home relatively happy under the circumstances.
You are a UEFA ambassador. What are the challenges they are facing?
If you look across Europe, leagues in countries like Iceland and Sweden, because of their daylight issues, can only play in the summer. A stoppage like this implies that finishing the season in the stipulated time-frame will be really difficult. There are other leagues apart from the top five and these also need to be taken into consideration.
No association can please the masses, but they should try and save the integrity of the sport. The decision taken at the end of the day will create contention, debate and endless argument but it is and will be a much better way of dealing with this issue than declaring an entire season null and void.
There are massive financial implications as well from transfers to broadcast revenue. What is your take on this?
The financial implications of not broadcasting matches will have a trickle-down effect on the lower division clubs. Quite a few may even go out of business. The top division, especially in England, can end up being Noah’s Ark if the season plays out.
With that broadcast revenue in their pocket, the rest of the footballing pyramid can be supported. In case of transfer business, PL clubs will still be better placed because of the massive TV rights deal but as a whole, the transfer window will see lesser number of clubs spending big or outbidding one another.
However, clubs with extremely rich owners might pick up talent on the cheap. Even TV rights might be recalculated thinking of the future. Broadcast companies are now suffering because of lack of live sports and their ability to fund these humongous bids will be challenged. UEFA might also need to relax FFP rules in order to allow clubs to exist.
(David James is an expert panellist on Sony Pictures Sports Network)