The coronavirus pandemic has spread across the world, disrupting all of society - and at every level. Millions have lost their jobs; many more face an uncertain future. And, lest we forget, many have died as a result of this terrible virus.
Even the normally cocooned world of professional sport has not escaped this maelstrom. Virtually all events have been shut down since mid-March. Many competitions have been abandoned or rescheduled for a future date, including this year’s Olympics.
Foremost in the minds of many sports fans has been the disruption to the football season. The Euros have been moved to next year. And various leagues have either been abandoned until next season, or are set to return over the summer months.
Restarting this week, the Premier League is very keen to get going again for financial reasons.
Below we publish three articles received from socialist football fans on the safety implications of this - as well as the wider issues facing the ‘beautiful game’, including where it came from, who profits, and why it has become such a big part of working-class life.
Project Restart - restart profits, that is
By Len Scott
The government has given the go-ahead for Premier League football matches to resume on 17 June, under the label ‘project restart’. The Championship is also due to return a few days later, on 20 June. It is a move many will recognise as being solely profit-motivated, despite claims from the government that it is all about improving the country’s ‘morale’.
Football in England, as across most of the world, was finally suspended in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak. Despite significant pressure for games to stop, the British football authorities only intervened when the season threatened to descend into farce. Players and managers had begun to test positive, forcing entire teams to self-isolate.
There had been calls for the season to be suspended weeks before this. But, almost certainly, financial considerations meant it continued. Evidence has emerged that some Premier League matches may have played a role in the spreading of the virus across the UK. Researchers in Iceland also linked a cluster of at least seven cases in their country back to an (unnamed) Premier League match.
The danger of football games continuing during the pandemic was also seen elsewhere. Evidence suggests that a Champions League game involving Atlanta may have contributed to the catastrophic coronavirus outbreak in Lombardy in Northern Italy.
Two months ago today: Valencia-Atalanta game in Milan. An estimated 40,000 fans got the Coronavirus.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 19, 2020
Today, the Lombardy region, which contains Milan and Bergamo — where Atalanta is based — has 3X more cases (64K) & 4X (12K) more deaths than any other region in Italy. pic.twitter.com/DMyYWFf0we
The health consequences of the Champions League match played in Liverpool just days before the lockdown have also become all too clear.
Tragedy and farce
The financial implications involved in the restart are significant. When it became apparent that the virus would not disappear quickly, it was estimated that penalty clauses in the TV contracts alone would cost clubs over £30 million each should the season not be finished before the end of summer.
Premier League clubs predicted to lose £500m due to the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic— utdreport (@utdreport) June 11, 2020
Should football not be in a position for the new season to start in August or early September - which is looking increasingly likely - then the financial costs could be even greater.
This has resulted in football looking to restart in farcical conditions. Games will be played in empty stadiums. Players have been instructed to not celebrate goals with teammates, and to avoid shaking hands with anyone. And there is even a suggestion that multiple changing rooms will be used before and after games to limit the number of players in the same room.
It recently emerged that a Norwich City player - who played in a friendly match against Tottenham on Friday - has now tested positive for COVID-19. The players of both teams are at risk of contracting and spreading the disease and yet neither team is self-isolating. It has been deemed ‘safe’ for these players to be tackling each other and marking each other at corners and free kicks. Clearly this is all about presenting an appearance that safety is being considered but nothing more.
This is just nonsense!— VinceG (@VinceRooster) June 14, 2020
A sweaty, hard breathing, competitive footballer! Tackling, heading and close marking opposition players = no isolation!#coronavirus #PremierLeague
Thanks to @dipsMUFC for 1st retweet. https://t.co/0nMMUhg2jp
The decision to restart has been taken without consideration for fans or safety. With the government claiming that the reason for the restart is fans’ ‘morale’, it is strange that they haven’t actually asked fans their opinion!
Across the world, polls have suggested that a majority of sports fans do not think games should restart until it is safe for fans to be in attendance. While no similar poll has been done in the UK, it is difficult to believe that a different result would be shown.
Aside from considerations about fans, it is also clear that players’ safety is not being fully considered. Several have spoken out; and one went as far as saying that players were the “last people to be consulted”, and that the restart was purely “financially driven”. At least one other player refused to begin training due to concerns about the risk to a family member’s health.
It would be inaccurate to say that fans do not want football back as soon as possible. However, the majority recognise that it should not begin until the safety of all those involved can be guaranteed.
If it is not safe for fans to be in attendance, then it is not safe to restart. Likewise, if it is not safe for amateur and semi-professional sport to restart, then surely it is also not safe for professional sport to restart.
The decision must be made by fans and players; and it must be motivated by safety, not profits.
The problem of putting safety above profit is not unique to the purely privately owned clubs in England. German clubs are also restarting, despite supposedly being majority-owned by fans.
Driving capitalism and private ownership completely out of football is the only way to ensure that the game can be run for the benefit of the majority, and not for the profits of the minority.
Premier greed: A mirror Of Tory society
Carl Harper, Peterborough
The English Premier League is set to restart on 17 June, with games being played ‘behind closed doors’. Many fans are understandably looking forward to the restart. But there are some, like me, who see this move as symbolic of ‘modern football’ - prioritising profit above the importance of supporter engagement.
Modern football operates completely and exclusively within the capitalist model; its ‘development’ mirroring the ‘development’ of capitalism. And so like capitalism in wider society, the health and the interests of ordinary people are secondary to money.
The amount of TV money coming into football means even the side finishing bottom of the Premier League is guaranteed millions of pounds. In the 2018/19 season, the team finishing bottom is estimated to have received £93.6m in various TV rewards.
And with Premier League broadcast rights being sold for over £4.5 billion, in addition to other international TV rights and sponsorship, it is no wonder that there is urgency from those at the top to restart, offering fans ‘free’ games as compensation for not being able to attend.
The disgraceful actions of capitalists like Branson, Martin, etc, accessing the government’s furlough scheme - despite sitting on huge amounts of wealth - has also been replicated by some club owners, furloughing non-playing staff.
As expected, the Tories have tried to place the blame for their ineptitude in handling the crisis on to the shoulders of ordinary people. They claimed NHS staff were using PPE too quickly, and are now laying the basis for blaming BLM protesters for any potential second spike in Covid cases.
Alongside this, they have also tried to portray the NHS as a charity rather than a universal health service. Pensioners tootling up and down their gardens to raise money for the NHS have been a welcome distraction from attention being paid to the ruthless funding cuts to the NHS made by the Tories.
And footballers were also used for such a PR exercise. Tory politicians publicly attacked the pay of professional footballers, demanding they take pay cuts to help ‘fund’ health services.
Of course we should recognise the absurdity of Premier League players ‘earning' an average monthly salary of £240,000, whilst working class fans are priced out of the game. But it must also be acknowledged that the attack by Tory politicians and commentators targeting professional footballers enabled them to leave alone their friends and donors in the City, who ‘earn’ much higher levels of pay.
Throughout history, football has been used by the right wing. Franco and Mussolini both used football to reach the masses. And more recently, the DFLA attempted to utilise the ‘ultra’ movement amongst football fans to promote their racists and fascist ideologies.
Though it is possible for the left to also reach out to the hundreds of thousands who attend football matches and the millions who watch worldwide. Clubs such as Rayo Vallecano in Spain (who I support), St. Pauli in Germany, and lower league teams such as Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton CFC in the UK, have shown that a proudly working-class, anti-fascist, anti-discriminatory fan base can be hugely popular and effective in demanding clubs listen to the demands of their fans. A group of 100 fans of Wrexham FC in North Wales even travelled up to Manchester last weekend to fight the far right.
Fascists got a pasting in #Manchester city centre today from visiting #Wrexham fooball fans who have an aversion to seeing racists openly gathering on the street. Good on the Wrexham lads, we don't want these bozoes polluting Manchester. #FLAF https://t.co/gmaPgUtvWh— FLAF_GreaterManchester (@FLAFGreaterMan1) June 13, 2020
Football And class struggle: If you know your history…
Martin Page, Leicester
Football: you either get it or you don't. It’s a way of life for some, and a distraction from the revolution for others. But, with the virus in full flow and the working class still confined in large numbers, the phenomenon has suddenly attracted interest and comment from those without the knowledge - particularly over the issues of wages for players and staff in the respective clubs.
So why does football attract the working class? Firstly, we have the packaged, televised, commercialised product with its millionaire players and owners that we all see today. Yet this bears little resemblance to football as it has been historically - a game full of rebellion against authority, a tradition that continues amongst the fans today. This rebellious nature is reflected both in reactionary and revolutionary ways - much like life itself!
Fifty years of television coverage of hooliganism in the game has made a big impression in the minds of the public. So when there's bawdiness from football fans in pubs, it’s seen as intimidating.
However, in the days of full employment, these scenes were the norm in pubs and clubs come payday, through to the point when your money ran out on a weekly basis. The loss of the clubs, the atomisation of communities through deindustrialisation, and loss of income has reduced these mass gatherings to rare occasions around big events - football being the obvious one.
History of the beautiful game
Football precedes capitalism by centuries. It first appears in the history books in the following description of football being played in London in 1174:
“After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.”
Nothing changes, despite attempts by subsequent monarchs (with the exception of James I) to try and ban the sport. From 1314 to 1667 there were 30 different acts passed banning the pastime - the chief argument of lawmakers being that it was a distraction from archery! Although James I even made football compulsory on Sunday afternoons, the Puritans later banned it once more. But despite all the bans, the sport thrived. Why?
Many of the games were used to hide revolutionary movements such as that at West Haddon in 1765, when a match was advertised on land that had just been enclosed. Workers and youth from miles around arrived; and, in the heat of the game, all the new fences were somehow burnt down, resulting in armed militiamen being called out.
One thing is clear: throughout history, no ruling class has ever been very keen on its masses gathering in large numbers in unity. The game was always seen as a lower class sport, with even Shakespeare making disdainful comments on the sport in two of his plays.
With the development of capitalism, and no prospect of the game being subjugated, it eventually had to become organised and regimented. But it was only in 1961 that the maximum wage was removed by the players union, which has led us to the sport becoming the big business we see today.
Although many fans are irked at this, they still follow their teams and millions play weekly. My take on it is that it’s a game of genius made to look simple by those with the skill. Think about the fact the missile is the hardest shape to control or predict,and we actually prohibit the use of the appendages that separate us from all other animals (with the exception of the goalies).
As a team game it requires different roles and skills to succeed. Much like working in a factory, it demands unity and cooperation. That's why, in my humble opinion, it’s the greatest sport in the world!
In the words of Bill Shankly:
“The socialism I believe in isn’t really politics. It’s a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.”
Words to live by indeed!