‘The people’s game without the people,’ the football commentator Peter Drury said on 12 March, introducing BT Sport’s coverage of the Europa League fixture between Wolverhampton Wanderers and the Greek side Olympiacos. ‘It’s not the same for you and it’s not the same without you.’ The match was taking place behind closed doors, as all sporting events will be for the foreseeable future. This was the biggest match that Wolves had played in my lifetime. I had flown to Barcelona the month before to watch them play Espanyol. It was surreal to walk down La Rambla, half-filled with Black Country residents in bright gold shirts. But watching the game against Olympiacos in Athens was uncanny in its own way. There was drama – two goals and a red card – but without a crowd the stakes seemed lower.
On 9 March, the Italian Serie A was suspended indefinitely. In Spain three days later, La Liga was put on hold, and the German Bundesliga the day after that. In the UK, football was suspended on 13 March, ten days before the government announced a general lockdown. The Bundesliga has since resumed, the first of the major European leagues to do so. The Dutch Erevidise and the French Ligue 1, by contrast, have decided that trying to finish the season isn’t feasible – or necessary. But how to end the competition fairly? In France, the remaining league games were cancelled, and a points per game system used to determine the final result. This meant that the bottom two clubs, Amiens and Toulouse, were relegated to Ligue 2; both have since launched legal proceedings against the Ligue de Football Professionnel. The Dutch took a different approach, cancelling the season outright: no promotions, no relegations and no champions. The head of the Dutch FA said he thought it was ‘very doubtful’ that the Premier League would be able to complete the current campaign. And yet, after two months with no football, the Premier League announced that it is set to return on 17 June, with all games to be played without spectators.
What the Premier League CEO, Richard Masters, has called ‘the behind closed doors product’ will be a very different viewing experience from the one we’re used to. Computer-generated fans have been mooted. Work is reportedly underway on an app that will make it possible for fans to record chants that will be piped into the stadium during the game. Project Restart will follow the German example, where all players are tested at least twice a week, and always the day before a game. Teams arrive at the stadium in multiple coaches and use several additional dressing rooms to maintain distancing. On the pitch, players are encouraged not to communicate, and goal scoring celebrations are limited to ‘short contact with elbow or foot’. It remains unclear what the process will be if a player tests positive after a game. The Deutsche Fußball Liga have adopted a wait and see approach: ‘In the case of positive test results, the decision about the measures to be taken lies with the local health authorities.’ The British government has taken a keen interest in the matter. On 11 May, Boris Johnson, teasing the return of televised sport, called it ‘a much needed boost to the nation’s morale’. The Telegraph reported that ministers were ‘demanding’ that games be broadcast at 3 p.m. on Saturdays, and that they should be ‘free to air’. ‘I don’t give a fuck about the nation’s morale,’ the Tottenham defender Danny Rose said in response. ‘People are dying.’
For a while, the only European league still running was the top division in Belarus, the Vysheyshaya Liga. The stadiums were half-filled with defiant, shirtless fans. President Lukashenko called the virus ‘just another psychosis’. Visit the sauna, he suggested, and have some vodka. ‘Two or three times a week will do you good. When you come out of the sauna, not only wash your hands, but also your insides.’ So the league continued, though numbers dwindled as fans took it on themselves to self-isolate. A few clubs, including the reigning champions, Dinamo Brest, began using cardboard cut-out fans to make the stands look full for the TV cameras. (This has backfired in Australia, where a similar initiative has been hijacked by fans sending joke suggestions. A cardboard Dominic Cummings was seen watching a recent Australian rugby league match.) Since this was the only game in town, broadcast companies around the world took notice. The Belarusian Football Association secured rights deals with networks in ten countries, including Russia, Israel and India.
The most aggressive lobbying for Project Restart has come from Sky, BT and Amazon, who have spent billions on deals to broadcast the Premier League. Between 2010 and 2013, the rights cost £3.1 billion, almost half of which came from overseas. The latest deal, for 2019-22, was worth £9.2 billion, with £4.2 billion from overseas. Sky and BT were set to lose £1 billion in revenue if top-flight sports remained shut down until August. By restarting when it did, the Bundesliga is set to recoup €300 million in broadcasting revenue – the Premier League will be saving much, much more.
As soon as matches were interrupted, football teams took action to protect themselves from financial hardship. On 20 April, Arsenal announced that its players had agreed to take a pay cut of 12.5 per cent, with the proviso that they will be reimbursed if they qualify for the Champions League within the next two seasons. Initially, several top clubs, including Tottenham and Liverpool, took advantage of the government’s furlough scheme for their non-playing staff, but both quickly reversed this decision after pressure from supporters. Arsenal are worried about falling behind Europe’s elite: the longer they remain outside the Champions League, the less broadcasting money they make on a yearly basis, and the lower the calibre of player they can attract. At the other end of the Premier League, the relegated clubs – as things stand, that’s Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich – will experience a potentially devastating drop in their revenues.
The lower divisions have their own deal with Sky, worth £595 million, as well as receiving £140 million in ‘solidarity payments’ from the Premier League every year. This amounts to less than a tenth of the Premier League’s domestic broadcasting deal. Many lower league clubs depend on ticket sales, and games behind closed doors, or no games at all, means financial ruin. Damian Collins, the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe and co-author of a report entitled ‘A Way Forward for Football’, predicts that up to ten clubs could go into administration in the coming weeks. Nigel Clough, son of Brian Clough, resigned from his post as Burton Albion manager on 18 May – they could no longer pay his wages. Several clubs have furloughed their entire playing and non-playing staff.
As in many other industries, the pandemic has exposed fissures that were already starting to show. If at some point in the near future it becomes clear that gatherings of thousands of people won’t be allowed for some time to come, the Football Association will have to decide what matters more: the ‘product’ of the Premier League, or the 150-year-old fabric of the national game. Small clubs were already suffering before the virus hit. Last year Bury FC, which has been a member of the Football League since 1894 and won the FA Cup in 1900 and 1903, was expelled after financial troubles left it unable to pay players for months on end. Bolton, a Premier League club as recently as 2012, was forced to set up an emergency foodbank for its staff after going into administration.
On 15 May, the 24 clubs in League Two, the fourth tier of the English League, voted unanimously to end the season. The costs of continuing were just too great. Not only would the tests cost £140,000, according to Phil Wallace, the owner of Stevenage FC, ‘we would have to bring players out of furlough and comply with a 47-page health and safety document regarding sterilisation of stadiums.’ As far as the Premier League is concerned though, it seems both the government and the broadcasters have got what they wanted. Sky has announced it will show 64 of the remaining games, 25 of which will be available to non-Sky customers on its website. Top-flight football will return to the BBC for the first time since the Premier League began in 1992: it has been allocated four ‘free to air’ games. BT will screen twenty games, 12 more than it would have done had the season finished without incident. The matches will be shown in carefully arranged time slots across several days: 8 p.m. on Friday; 12.30 p.m., 3 p.m., 5.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday; 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 4.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday; 8 p.m. on Monday; 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Endless, crowdless football. Liverpool will lift the Premier League trophy, their first in thirty years, in an empty stadium to the sound of canned chanting. Millions of people will be watching, but no one will be there to see it happen.