Six months on, sport learns a new humility
The effects of Covid-19 have weakened the structures of our most loved games but can also usher in a more open attitude
Sport’s response, when first the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 to be an emergency of international concern six months ago today, was hardly decisive. Quietly, and without much lamenting, the Chinese Grand Prix was shelved, yet Formula One bowled along with its pre-season build-up with barely a backwards step. On Feb 11, Ferrari were confident enough to stage an opulent launch event in EmiliaRomagna, a region that has since seen more than 4,000 deaths from coronavirus. The scenes of Wuhan residents being welded into tower blocks by masked men with blow torches warranted barely a whisper.
Unwisely or otherwise, sport had grown accustomed to riding roughshod over the direst virus warnings. The Rio Olympics passed off peacefully despite a multitude of athletes withdrawing in fear of Zika, a mosquito-borne disease circulating in Brazil in 2016, while the Sars epidemic in 2003 forced little more than the postponement of that year’s World Badminton Championships. But Covid bore down on once-impregnable sporting pillars – the Tokyo Games, Euro 2020, a Masters that had not even been interrupted by the first three years of the Second World War – and skittled them like ninepins.
If sport has learnt anything from six monstrous months, it is the virtue of humility. Once, the grandees of Augusta National acted as if they owned the spring. Now, they face a struggle just to reschedule their manicured showpiece for November. As the virus seeded across Europe in early March, with Italy
entering a nationwide shutdown, the Champions League continued playing to full houses. Now, for its final stages, it confronts the oddity of Zadok the Priest echoing around two empty stadiums in Lisbon.
It marks the end of an era of unfettered power in global sport. Not for nothing do the richest governing bodies, from Fifa to the International Olympic Committee, operate within the mysterious tax structures of the Swiss cantons. But today, their omnipotence is stripped away, with any decisions on the future dictated solely by the virus.
Already there is talk of next summer’s Tokyo Olympics – assuming it happens – being “simplified”. The intricate latticework of international football threatens to be shredded by the interruptions to global travel and the fluid state of most countries’ quarantine regimes.
A case could be made that sport has learnt to adapt, but the antiseptic realities of its present are not ones it can abide for long. The Premier League behind closed doors can feel hollow; inconsequential. What has elevated it, like it or not, is the dedication of the television coverage.
For all that top-flight football returned mid-pandemic to reduce the rebate owed to broadcasters, it is their ingenuity, piping in ambient crowd noise for the benefit of viewers and letting Roy Keane explore the farthest extremes of his anger towards goalkeepers, that has made even half-paced training games feel as if they mattered.
The value of human attendance is priceless. All the little tricks that football would pull before Covid brought the shutters down, ratcheting up season-ticket prices far above inflation and scheduling Wembley finals at times that bore no relation to the last trains from Euston, are unconscionable now. Supporters must be cherished, not fleeced, as football looks towards a restoration of the game’s soul. For all that biosecure protocols will remain inimical to singing and exuoutposts berant celebration for months yet, the return of any crowd helps produce a precious shaft of light.
Further down the pyramid, the threat to clubs shorn of gate receipts is existential. The sight of Wigan Athletic falling into administration, with its legal protest against relegation due to be heard tomorrow, is one that could grow distressingly
Supporters must be cherished, not fleeced, as football looks towards a restoration of its soul
familiar next season. Too many Championship clubs, living on the ragged edge due to exorbitant player salaries, are castles built on sand. They were ill-equipped to survive a hiatus lasting days, let alone months. While the pandemic has delivered the harshest lesson in the importance of a long-term business strategy, it is likely, at many of the Football League map, to be heeded too late.
Sport, at the highest levels, depends on freedom of movement and a minimum of bureaucracy, concepts incompatible with the splintered complexity of a virus-riddled world. Borders are being tightened, not loosened, which for tennis equates to a nightmare without end. Never mind the anxieties about whether next month’s US Open can happen on time, the scheduling chaos could last far beyond, with the sport’s lucrative Asian swing in tatters and January’s Australian Open in the gravest doubt.
It is difficult for anyone involved in sport to function without structure. By its nature, it is diarised, cyclical, relentless. Domestic rugby in mid-August and Roland Garros in October are not aberrations that can be easily computed. The sheer volume of 21st-century sport is also made manifest in the size of the fixture logjams. In navigating this deepest of valleys, the one guiding light is that of the sunlit uplands beyond.
Empty stadiums: The Premier League season ended with matches played without fans