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Changing the Game: Football & COVID-19

In this blog, The Punter speculates about what the game of football will be like once the major leagues resume. What will the impact of a changed COVID-19 landscape be on Teams like Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United? Read more below.

With the world plunged into a time of deep uncertainty, many football fans are beginning to wonder one thing as our quiet isolation drags on: what will football be like when the world returns to normal?

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck at the heart of every major competitive sport across the planet. Sports, more so than many other activities, were always going to be at the greatest risk of this highly communicable disease.

We have all watched those great fixtures on a weekend or weeknight, with stadiums packed to the rafters and chanting fans urging their team on.

This was once a sight that generally inspired a longing to be amongst the braying masses. But some may now think twice given the possibilities for mass infection.

Football’s unsustainable arc

Will the supporters be packing the stadiums once again to see their beloved teams when the quarantine is over, or will the lingering anxiety keep all but the most fervent away for a long time?

The simple answer, at least for the football clubs, is that the stadiums must be filled. And at almost any cost.

It is no secret that football was already on an unsustainable financial arc for a long time. The fees for top players are now regularly being touted around the £100 million mark, thanks to cutthroat agents and clubs desperate for quick success.

There is no conceivable way this trend would have carried on without collapse, even without the pandemic.

Atletico Madrid’s £142m purchase of 19 year-old Joao Felix was 2019’s most expensive transfer [Photo: Sky Sports]
Agents and Bloated Deals

If a player has widely recognized talent, his parent club and agent are more than willing to hold any bigger club to ransom for bloated deals. And then there’s often signing-on clauses that push the contract worth ever higher.

There’s little doubt that many of us have looked at the transfer targets of the clubs we support and shook our heads at the fees being bandied about.

These days even the half-decent players can go for phenomenal fees that they’re unlikely to live up to. This muddies the waters on what the real world-class players are actually worth.

It takes a great deal of money to sustain a competitive squad with the best players available, as you’ll see in the table below.

Top 10 most expensive squads in Europe 2019 [Graphic: Tribuna]
The Bread and Butter of Football

Of course, the top clubs may have massive sponsorship deals to help them gain the financial clout to bankroll all of that. But the bread and butter of any club, at any level of football, is still the supporters and getting them into that stadium.

The top-level clubs don’t build massive stadiums for nothing. It’s to get paying customers in the seats.

The best example we can look at is Manchester United. United for the past 21 years has maintained an average attendance rating of 99% at Old Trafford.

For a stadium that can hold just under 75,000 people, this produces a remarkable turnover in revenue. The figure is said to be somewhere in the region of £140 million per annum, which they only failed to better once. This was back in 2014/15 due to not qualifying for European football.

With FIFA Financial Fair Play rules getting ever and ever tighter, the clubs must maintain this income to augment their spending power in the market.

Revenue streams for top European Football clubs 2018-19 [Graphic: The Economist]
Clubs are losing Millions daily

The bigger clubs that can afford to, are now absorbing the cost of this enforced break and paying their staff out of their own pockets. Those clubs that cannot pay staff wages themselves, are using a government-provided furlough.

The FA’s in many countries have been caught dragging their feet on decisions as to how they will help all the staff under their purview. This has led to many kind-hearted players having to step in and help at their own expense.

Millions upon millions are being lost daily in the footballing world, something that every club will be feeling deeply as the quarantine stretches on. Worse still, we may end up losing some clubs that fall too far into debt over this period.

A cameraman filming at Borussia Dortmund [Photo: DW]
Playing for TV rights behind closed doors

Much has been made of the suggestion for teams to play behind closed doors as soon as this is possible.

The thinking goes that income from the television rights would still be able to provide a boon through this tough time.

One must, however, remember that these payouts are not distributed equally. Television rights are distributed based on both forecasted and actual viewing figures.

It is no secret then, that the bigger clubs will always get the lion’s share due to their larger supporter base.

This may create severe financial inequality that cannot easily be corrected, especially by a FIFA organisation that we know is extremely slow to adapt.

And even within the big clubs there is inequality because you have teams like Manchester United earning more from television rights than Liverpool or Manchester City. This is simply because of their huge global supporter base, and not about where they are going to finish on the table.

Highest average match attendance European leagues [Graphic: Statista]
Paying £200m for a player in a time of inequality

One of the biggest stories still floating around is Neymar’s proposed transfer back to Barcelona for around £200 million.

Can you imagine that Barcelona, amidst the social impact of covid-19, with economies on the brink of collapse and the club’s own employees taking salary cuts, would be willing to throw that amount of money at a single player?

They would be rightly cut to ribbons in the press and no doubt lose a lot of goodwill in the eyes of the public. All clubs will certainly be faced with this moral dilemma, and how they respond to it will be of the greatest importance to how football will move forward.

Neymar celebrates a goal for PSG [Photo: FC Barcelona Noticias]
Who benefits if teams don’t make big transfer moves?

Quarantine measures across Europe are forecast to last well past 6 months. While football action may return sooner than that, it will be under severely restricted income flows.

It’s extremely hard to imagine that clubs will be doling out huge sums of money on any players. This could have huge implications for many of the leagues.

Looking just at the Premier League, Liverpool looks like they have a squad that could seriously compete for the next 3-5 years without new additions.

Manchester City looks a side that needs a few fresh faces, with the likes of David Silva retiring and Sergio Aguero well into his 30s when we resume.

Teams like Manchester United that have exciting young talent coming through could be the big winners from diminished transfer activity. Solsjkear could end up moulding himself the squad he needs with what he has at that club.

Teams like Sheffield United have good players who are only playing on loan for them at the moment. They could find themselves very light when those players return to their parent clubs and they might be unable to put a decent squad together on their shoestring budget.

And what does this all mean for the Paul Pogba’s of the world who were looking to make moves for big money?

They will have to buckle down and put in some hard work and good performances to make sure they are still worthy of a big-money transfer in another season or two. If teams have the money.

Time for the young talent to shine?

Looking at all this, it seems likely that FIFA will have to intervene at some point and tighten up their financial restrictions, or the inequality between teams will grow to unacceptable levels.

If you hamstring the smaller teams’ abilities to pick up a decent squad any further, the EPL, La Liga, and other leagues may descend into the one-horse races we see in the smaller European nations.

Considering that not all countries will end quarantines at the same time, and that there may be highly restricted travel for some time still, the brightest outlook could be for the local talent in each country.

Every club spends millions each year bringing in young talent from around the world to compete in their academies.

What if these academies now had to resort to their local vicinity to bring in youngsters? We could see a return to the days where clubs are stocked to the brim with talented boys who live within walking distance of the stadium. This is, however, a double-edged sword.

The English League is by far the best in the world, but it did not quite get there by having only the best British talent. It also got there by importing some of the best players and coaches in the world.

Where would they be without Foreign Flair?

Henry, Cantona, Drogba, all names we could have missed out on if the English had kept to their old ways.

Many say that the EPL has too many foreigners and that it hurts the national side. But to be the best, players must play with, for, or against the best.

The success of English clubs, and the league as a whole, has been the willing adoption of all the skills, innovations and players available around the world, brought into the local clubs by shrewd managers who understood the game like no other.

Where would Arsenal be without the genius and beautiful football that Arsene Wenger brought to the club?

Where would Liverpool be if the Rafa Benitez hadn’t brought home the Champions League?

Or Chelsea if the Special One hadn’t put together one of the most solid sides the league has ever seen?

It remains to be seen if relying on local talent will be better or worse of the game in each country. But it is clear that much adaptation is needed by the clubs if they are to maintain an upward trajectory.

Eric Cantona in his heyday [Photo: Daily Express]
One certainty in these uncertain times…

Supersport may still have a constant roll of classic football content on its channels to placate anyone flipping through to scratch that sporting itch. But nothing quite compares to the thrill of a live contest.

The sounds of the English supporters chanting, the “oohs” of the Spanish crowds, the singing of the German fans, all sounds we want to fill our living rooms once again.

In these uncertain times, the one certainty is that we can’t wait to have our football back. Not the money mill show it has become over the years, but the pure contest of strength, skill and will that we have all come to love.

And of course The Punter’s Soccer Tips will be back too!

As we all hope to return from this pandemic stronger and better, so do we hope that football returns stronger and better.

We hope that it brings with it the power to inspire and uplift us past these dark times, towards dreams of our teams lifting trophies on high as we cheer them on.

Stay safe out there and all the best to you and your families,

The Punter

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