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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Oliver Brown CHIEF SPORTS WRITER

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.