Au­thor­i­ties put squab­bles to one side and strike heart­en­ing tone in a cri­sis

The Guardian - - Sport - David Conn

In nor­mal times, last ex­pe­ri­enced in Bri­tain only a week ago, it might have been fan­ci­ful to imag­ine that in some un­prece­dented global cri­sis foot­ball’s squab­bling and of­ten self-seek­ing ad­min­is­tra­tors would step up and be­have like lead­ers.

Of course, faced with an un­think­able pan­demic they have had lit­tle other choice than to put their sport im­me­di­ately on hold but as they did so it was al­most weird to see them strik­ing the right tone.

The sen­ti­ment that pub­lic health is the over­rid­ing pri­or­ity, that foot­ball can­not hap­pen in these cir­cum­stances but that it has a cher­ished place in life and will as­sert its best val­ues of sol­i­dar­ity, came in a flurry when Uefa held its meet­ing of all na­tional foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tions on Tues­day.

Kar­ren Brady, the West Ham vice-chair, had been loudly booed be­fore for sug­gest­ing in her col­umn in the Sun that the sea­son should be con­sid­ered null and void, although she was not the only de­ci­sion-maker be­liev­ing that to be the case. Af­ter see­ing how that went down and for other rea­sons sport­ing, hu­man and prag­matic, the English game ex­pressed a de­ter­mi­na­tion to get the sea­son played if at all pos­si­ble and in any avail­able cir­cum­stances.

On 3 March at the Uefa congress in Am­s­ter­dam, the Euro­pean gov­ern­ing body’s pres­i­dent, Alek­sander Ce­ferin, made an odd, ram­bling speech that pur­ported to be an af­fir­ma­tion of foot­ball’s best val­ues – “pur­pose over profit,” he said. But it was widely taken by followers of all the dis­mal pol­i­tics in the past two years to be a veiled at­tack on the Fifa pres­i­dent, Gianni In­fantino, although he was not named, for his ex­pan­sion­ist Club World Cup plans, which Ce­ferin saw as a tank-park­ing threat on the man­i­cured lawns of the Cham­pi­ons League’s own ex­pan­sion plans.

Ex­actly two weeks later, there was Ce­ferin on Tues­day, hold­ing a tele-con­fer­ence with all of Europe’s 55 na­tional as­so­ci­a­tions in­clud­ing the FAs of Eng­land, Scot­land, Wales and Ire­land, at which they agreed to va­cate the month sched­uled for the Eu­ros in the hope of help­ing some nor­mal­ity to re­turn, at least to the world’s most pop­u­lar sport, by the sum­mer. And there was Ce­ferin in the state­ment sent by Uefa, the silly turf wars set aside for now, thank­ing every­body in­volved in mak­ing the nec­es­sary de­ci­sion quickly, in­clud­ing In­fantino by name.

“I would like to thank Fifa and its pres­i­dent, Gianni In­fantino, who has in­di­cated it will do what­ever is re­quired to make this new cal­en­dar work,” Ce­ferin said. “In the face of this cri­sis, foot­ball has shown its best side with open­ness, sol­i­dar­ity and tol­er­ance.”

Ce­ferin, asked whether this cri­sis would pro­vide “a pause” to con­sider the fu­ture struc­ture of foot­ball in a more col­lab­o­ra­tive way, seemed to speak hon­estly when an­swer­ing that he and oth­ers had been jolted out of their ha­bit­ual po­lit­i­cal ter­rain and on to a recog­ni­tion of their sport’s ba­sic virtues.

“I don’t know what will hap­pen con­cern­ing the foot­ball cal­en­dar,” he said, “but … what I saw to­day is that this sit­u­a­tion brought us to­gether – Uefa, leagues, clubs, other con­fed­er­a­tions, es­pe­cially [the South Amer­i­can con­fed­er­a­tion] Con­mebol which I would like to thank, be­cause they agreed that if we move the Euro, they move the Copa [América]. If any­thing, then we saw that our ecosys­tem is frag­ile, that it’s one ecosys­tem, that we have to act re­spon­si­bly and that we have to help each other. There is no more time for ego­tis­tic ideas. There is no more time for self­ish­ness. So in a way, you’re right. This is a re­set of world foot­ball.”

In­fantino fol­lowed that with a state­ment which in­cluded a $10m con­tri­bu­tion to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion Covid-19 sol­i­dar­ity re­sponse fund, sen­si­ble ad­min­is­tra­tive moves and another state­ment of val­ues: “unity, sol­i­dar­ity, a shared sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Peanuts, some might scoff, but it seemed like lead­er­ship in a time when Boris John­son’s gov­ern­ment was still not fol­low­ing WHO ad­vice to tackle the pan­demic with a mass test­ing strat­egy to iden­tify car­ri­ers of the virus.

Many of those in­volved in the cri­sis talks at in­ter­na­tional level and in the emer­gency con­fer­ence calls held from empty of­fices in Eng­land have said the mood of co­op­er­a­tion is gen­uine, not just words set out for show in pub­lic state­ments.

All of this has a ter­ri­bly long way to go but some lead­er­ship was shown this week and that was ac­tu­ally sur­pris­ingly heart­en­ing.

▲ Sel­hurst Park, like all other foot­ball grounds, is closed for busi­ness

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