The English Premier League will return on 17 June behind closed doors, following its resumption in Germany. Fans who have been missing the ‘beautiful game’ for the last two months will be looking forward to the restart, but also recognise the potential problems posed, and the motives of some club owners, TV companies and football authorities to resume. Former Aston Villa and Bulgaria player Stilyian Petrov is among those to claim it puts “wealth before health”. Helena Byrne looks at football during the pandemic and what sort of game we should fight for.
Premier League football is set to return on 17 June

Premier League football is set to return on 17 June   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Football played a part in spreading the pandemic. Northern Italy was the ground zero for coronavirus in Europe, and then Spain became the second most infected country after Italy. The Spanish authorities were caught off guard as they thought they would have a few more weeks to prepare for the virus as they don’t share a land border with Italy. However, the spread of the virus across the continent was escalated by the Uefa Champions League.

In the Round of 16, Italian side Atalanta were drawn against the Spanish side Valencia, with the first leg played in Italy on 19 February and the second leg in Spain on 10 March. Atalanta are from the small city of Bergamo, in the northern Lombardy region, and due to their home ground capacity, their home match was played in Milan. Bergamo was the worst-hit city in Italy.

At the end of March 2020 around 4,178 people had died in Lombardy, out of a total of over 6,820 in Italy. The mayor of the city stated that “40,000 Bergamo inhabitants went to Milan to watch the game. Others watched it from their homes, in families, in groups, at the bar”, which helped to spread the virus. Valencia announced soon after the match that 35% of their team and staff had tested positive for coronavirus, following the trip to Milan.

A spike in coronavirus cases in Liverpool is also suspected to be linked to the Champions League fixtures between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid – in Spain on 18 February and in Britain on 11 March. Matthew Ashton, Liverpool’s public health director, has said that the latter fixture should not have been played.

One of the fans that attended the match said “there were queues and groups everywhere. Pubs were packed, friends greeted each other with the customary contact, fans gathered in condensed queues and stood or sat together in close proximity… The celebrations that night were very physical, shared experiences”.

From the start of March, there was a lot of concern among the general public and the media about the spread of coronavirus, and whether or not mass gatherings should still take place. Many countries across Europe had already announced the cancellation of mass gatherings and put in place restrictions on how many people could gather in public places. For instance, in France the Champions League fixture between Paris Saint-Germain against German side Borussia Dortmund was played behind closed doors.

There were calls on the English Premier League to cancel all football, even though the British government had not implemented any restrictions on gatherings. The Liverpool match was played on a Wednesday, and by that Friday, 13 March, the Premier League and all other football had been suspended.

However, this measure wasn’t taken simply because of concern for the health and wellbeing of match-going fans. It was taken after the Arsenal head coach and some players tested positive soon after their tie with Greek side Olympiacos at the end of February.

During this period the government was using ‘herd immunity’ as its strategy. It wasn’t until 16 March that Boris Johnson announced that people should work from home if possible and social distance. It took another week before Johnson announced an actual lockdown.

Furlough and players’ pay

With the lockdown there was a huge rise in unemployment, and the government was forced to announce the furlough scheme to help businesses pay wages while they weren’t working. By the end of March, Premier League clubs Tottenham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Norwich, had announced that they would furlough non-playing staff.

There was huge pushback from fans when their clubs announced they would use this scheme as they generate huge profits every year. Liverpool and Tottenham were forced to reverse the decision following pressure from fans. But lower league clubs have to use this scheme to survive as they depend on gate receipts to run the club.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was asked why Premier League clubs could use this scheme while most players in those teams receive huge wages. Hancock responded with “the first thing they can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part”. He kept pushing this in most media interviews for weeks after, and it was repeated by other government figures.

However, he didn’t call on UK tax exiles and big businesses which are using furlough schemes to “play their part”. Wayne Rooney rightly criticised Hancock saying: “How the past few days have played out is a disgrace. First Matt Hancock said that Premier League players should take a pay cut. He was supposed to be giving the nation the latest on the biggest crisis we’ve faced in our lifetimes. Why was the pay of footballers even in his head? Was he desperate to divert attention from his government’s handling of this pandemic?”

Footballers were an easy target, even though only a small percentage of players earn huge salaries, and they generally come from working-class backgrounds. The players’ union, the PFA, said its members were resolved to play their part, but warned that a projected 30% salary reduction would cost the country £200 million in lost tax receipts. Premier League players responded by setting up the #PlayersTogether fund to support NHS charities.

During this crisis, the government has tried to shift blame for successive funding cuts to the NHS onto ordinary people, and in this case footballers, by turning it into a charity rather than a national health service that should be properly funded through central government funds rather than donations from the public.

Women’s football

Unlike the men’s Premier League, the Women’s Super League has been cancelled. Professional female players have always had a precarious set up. The pandemic has highlighted the wealth gap between men’s and women’s leagues, as many of the top female players don’t have gym equipment at home to keep training. There are fears that when football resumes, it will set back the development of women’s football.

The English Football Association is pushing for women’s clubs to be affiliated with a men’s side. But Sunderland is the one example of how this went wrong as, when a men’s club faces financial pressure, the women’s team is usually the first thing to go. Already there have been some women’s clubs disbanded during the pandemic.

How football should be run

Socialist Party member and trade unionist, John Reid, outlined in his publication, Reclaim the Game, a socialist alternative to the way football is currently run.

The pandemic has brought home once again to football fans at the vast majority of clubs up and down the country the constant insecurity that comes with the poor financial health of our clubs.

But there is no lack of money in football. The next three years of Premier League broadcast rights have been sold for over £4.5 billion, not including international TV rights and sponsorship. This of course plays a part in the Premier League’s drive to restart, while some lower leagues have been cancelled.

This money should be used to keep clubs afloat who rely heavily on gate receipts, as well as to invest in grassroots football and facilities owned by us.

Clubs should be collectively owned, and run by delegates elected from the supporters, from the players and employees’ unions, and from the local community. This should be emulated in the ruling bodies of the game too.

Supporters have a common cause to reclaim our game. We want football that we can afford to watch, football that we run, and facilities that we own!

  • ‘Reclaim the Game’ – a socialist programme for football by John Reid – available from