Will the game be­come a ca­su­alty of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis?

Fi­nan­cial im­pact of virus out­break could hit hard while play­ers on short-term deals are es­pe­cially con­cerned

The Guardian - - News Coronaviru­s - Suzanne Wrack

It has been said re­peat­edly of late that foot­ball, like many other things, no longer ex­ists in a bub­ble. No area of so­ci­ety is able to stay im­mune from this crip­pling dis­ease. Foot­ball is no dif­fer­ent. Women’s foot­ball is no dif­fer­ent.

Amanda Van­der­vort, the chief women’s foot­ball of­fi­cer for Fifpro, the global play­ers’ union, said the coro­n­avirus pan­demic could be “a ma­jor set­back to the growth and progress we’ve made as an in­dus­try” and called for a “smart and col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach, a com­mon vi­sion that unites na­tional strate­gies and im­ple­ments reg­u­la­tory in­ter­ven­tions to en­sure we min­imise set­backs”.

Hav­ing spo­ken to sources at Women’s Su­per League and Cham­pi­onship clubs, a pic­ture has emerged of the chal­lenges clubs, play­ers and the FA face in try­ing to mit­i­gate an in­escapable cri­sis.

Women’s teams in Eng­land op­er­ate over­whelm­ingly at a loss with, gen­er­ally, par­ent clubs of vary­ing fi­nan­cial strengths foot­ing the bill. With clubs across the men’s pyra­mid fac­ing the fi­nan­cial con­se­quences of post­poned games, it is in­evitable women’s teams will be af­fected.

For the ma­jor­ity of women’s teams, turn­stile and other match­day in­come does not cover the cost of ground con­tracts or hire, staffing and travel. The broad­cast rights for the women’s game are owned by BT Sport and the BBC, who cover their costs rather than pay­ing for rights. This means post­pone­ments have sig­nif­i­cantly less im­pact on women’s teams. The big­gest losses will be felt through cov­er­ing player, coach­ing and staff con­tracts through an ex­tended sea­son and a po­ten­tial loss of spon­sors.

They face the same questions as the men’s game. Who wins the league? Who gets a Cham­pi­ons League place? Who gets rel­e­gated? Who comes up?

That puts pres­sure on the FA to main­tain a united stance on the re­sump­tion, or not, across pro­fes­sional foot­ball: the Premier League, EFL, Women’s Su­per League and Women’s Cham­pi­onship. There is a logic to a united po­si­tion: split things up and they could be ac­cused of mixed mes­sages at a time when clar­ity in so­ci­ety is sought af­ter.

There is widespread sym­pa­thy to­wards the FA over the sit­u­a­tion it is hav­ing to deal with. It does ap­pear that sup­port for women’s teams may be on the cards, with clubs be­ing asked to sub­mit their ex­pected losses and costs to the gov­ern­ing body. An FA spokesper­son said: “Th­ese are un­prece­dented and chal­leng­ing times for all in­dus­tries around the world and foot­ball is no dif­fer­ent. We con­tinue to work tire­lessly with the foot­ball com­mu­nity, across ev­ery level of the game, to as­sess the im­pact of coro­n­avirus, while tak­ing the im­por­tant steps to sup­port the wel­fare of clubs, play­ers, staff and sup­port­ers.”

One source voiced con­cern that the out­break could be a per­fect storm for some clubs that would see it as an ex­cuse to cut loose their women’s teams and that wrap­ping up the league now could prompt a dis­missal of play­ers and staff.

Either way, play­ers stand to lose. Foot­ballers in the top two tiers of the women’s game are rarely on con­tracts of more than one year. Bar a hand­ful at the very top, they are not yet af­forded the se­cu­rity of lengthy con­tracts fa­mil­iar in the elite men’s game. With the ma­jor­ity of con­tracts end­ing in June, and some only paid un­til the sea­son was set to end in early May, play­ers have been anx­ious to learn their fates and it is not im­plau­si­ble that, should the FA seek to play out the league sea­son, play­ers could find them­selves play­ing their re­main­ing games for other teams.

Many play­ers at Cham­pi­onship level on semipro­fes­sional con­tracts have sec­ond jobs and will also find their off-field em­ploy­ment af­fected too. Scar­ily, th­ese are play­ers in one of the most se­cure foot­balling en­vi­ron­ments for women in the world.

Van­de­vort high­lighted the ex­tent of the strug­gle glob­ally. “Af­ter speak­ing with a num­ber of play­ers over the past sev­eral days, a few things have be­come clear to me,” she said. “First, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is all over the map and, for the play­ers, cri­sis man­age­ment is hap­pen­ing largely at a club-by-club level. Some clubs are com­mu­ni­cat­ing con­sis­tently and clearly with their play­ers, while oth­ers seem to barely share any in­for­ma­tion at all.

“Sec­ond, there is a great deal of vari­ance on whether clubs are al­low­ing play­ers to leave and re­turn to their homes and fam­i­lies. In such a time of a global pan­demic, play­ers de­serve the abil­ity to make the choices that are best for their in­di­vid­ual health and well­be­ing. Lastly, we’re hear­ing sit­u­a­tions where player con­tracts are al­ready be­ing can­celled, and oth­ers where clubs have al­ready re­struc­tured their bud­gets to elim­i­nate women’s foot­ball al­to­gether. Th­ese times are un­set­tling and play­ers are find­ing them­selves in pre­car­i­ous po­si­tions re­gard­ing where they’ll be through­out the quar­an­tine.”

Van­de­vort said play­ers should con­tinue to con­tact Fifpro, but is also keen to di­rect them to lo­cal player as­so­ci­a­tions. “We wel­come play­ers to get in touch with us if they have questions, but as a first point of con­tact wher­ever pos­si­ble, I’d ad­vise play­ers to first reach out to their do­mes­tic unions since they’ll be most fa­mil­iar with lo­cal labour laws and do­mes­tic foot­balling en­vi­ron­ments. It’s also worth shar­ing that over the last few years many of the ad­vances in women’s foot­ball have come when play­ers and their na­tional unions have worked to­gether to achieve progress.

“From Den­mark to Ire­land, Colom­bia, Chile, Cyprus, Spain and the US, women have achieved progress col­lec­tively. On an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis it can be chal­leng­ing but with team­mates along­side you can be­come much more in­flu­en­tial and can cre­ate long-last­ing pos­i­tive im­pacts.”

It is highly likely teams will fold and play­ers be dis­carded. Col­lec­tive or­gan­is­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence shar­ing could be key in help­ing play­ers nav­i­gate through this tu­mul­tuous pe­riod. Hope­fully, clubs and gov­ern­ing bod­ies will rise to the chal­lenge of pro­vid­ing sup­port.

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