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How 2020 brought football to its knees but forced it to take a stand

Covid crisis exposed as many faultlines in football as it did in society, from how it confronts race relations to huge financial disparity, writes Miguel Delaney

Friday 25 December 2020 09:14 GMT
Marcus Rashford takes a knee as the Premier League returns in June
Marcus Rashford takes a knee as the Premier League returns in June (Getty Images)

It was a year when football was brought to a halt, took a knee, made huge strides, but also ran itself to the point of near-exhaustion. It is entirely in-keeping with all that, then, that it’s actually difficult to know where so many competitions stand as a new unpredictability grips the game on the pitch.

What 2020 will be remembered for is nevertheless entirely predictable.

Football being forced into its longest ever suspension was an event of greater historic significance than any result, moment, team or figure.

It had an immense impact, but it is some of the knock-on effects that will have much greater long-term consequence for the game as a whole. The Covid crisis exposed as many faultlines in football as it did in society, from how it confronts race relations, to huge financial disparity.

There is considerable debate over whether opportunities have been wasted, especially with the economic divide. As ever, football was a mirror for a society, often showing a reflection before it could even recognise itself.

The March news that Mikel Arteta had contracted Covid-19 and that the Premier League had to be suspended was a moment that will have made many realise the true severity of the situation, another shuddering story in what seemed an ever-escalating news cycle at the time. Football's absence from our screens then only emphasised the unsettling strangeness of the circumstances. A sport that is everywhere was suddenly nowhere, forced to look back at its past and confront where it was.

The Premier League's June restart then signposted a return to relative normality, as well as a source of distraction and entertainment, for which it had become a significant political football. It persists now, having proven the success of its Covid model, as we enter another lockdown.

In terms of that wider social impact, you only have to look at the responses to the passing of Diego Maradona, Jack Charlton, Gerard Houllier and many other greats that 2020 took.

Football fans mourn the passing of Diego Maradona (AFP via Getty)

The entire year has been the deepest possible display of how little football matters, but thereby how much it actually matters as a consequence of that.

A question mark still remains over how much the results actually mattered this year, or how they will all end up being remembered. Will this year be seen as "real", or something akin to war-time exhibition football?

This isn’t to say there will be an asterisk beside Liverpool’s long-awaited 19th title, especially as they had essentially secured the league by January. That feat is something else 2020 will be remembered for. The empty stands amid so many scenes of celebration will nevertheless add a sense of displacement when people look back at the big victories of the year. This was most keenly felt at the Champions League final in Lisbon

At an event that is supposed to be the centrepiece of European football, and offer a feeling of true fulfilment for fans, the brilliant Bayern Munich team celebrated winning everything in front of nobody. It added an undeniable poignancy. Fixtures usually teeming with the life that only football can offer were instead devoid it. There is then the connected consequence of the absence of supporters. The year may have proved football isn’t nothing without fans, but it is definitely different. It may well have produced different performances and results, due to how players react. That is hard to say, but it is undeniable that the whole game is less of an event; a bit more just a TV product played out for TV contracts.

It is thereby at least possible the successes of this year will be written off as strange, or as much the products of the crisis’ many distortions as anything to do with football.

Bayern Munich celebrate winning the Champions League (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

It is usually at this stage of the year, after all, that there are reflections on any evolutions in the game. There aren’t many. Instead, it feels like football has devolved, the ludicrously congested schedule preventing the application of the tactical and physical leaps made in the last decade. You only have to look at the pressing figures. They are way down on last year, with what would usually be mid-table numbers now the top numbers of the moment.

That has ensured the crisis has had the double-sided effect of temporary lessening financial divides but also exposing the long-term problem.

Unable to apply their various advantages to the same degree, or refresh teams due to a stagnated market, more of the top sides are losing more games. The year ends with Europe’s top five leagues more collectively competitive than they have been in a decade. There is - at the very least - the possibility that not all of Juventus, Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain will win their titles, not to mention a sight of the end of the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era.

All of this has nevertheless ran alongside endless debate and negotiation over solidarity payments and bail-outs, as the crisis has finally made the game’s long problematic economic disparity unsustainable. The discussions over Project Restart threatened to reach a level of absurdity about relegation. The money of the Premier League proved so essential to some clubs that they might actually have been moving themselves into a position where it was better to not play at all.

VAR is changing the way football is played and consumed (Getty Images)

You couldn’t have a better summation of how the game has been engulfed by sums than that, not to mention the self-indulgent debate over whether VAR is “killing the game” at the same time as many clubs genuinely face extinction.

This isn’t to say the use of the technology isn’t a problem. We are at the point where there is at least a debate to be had over whether its advantages are outweighed by its disadvantages, but not enough to overtake discussions about the financial state of the sport.

Many involved insist “an opportunity has been wasted”.

Others say the discussion is ongoing, and the opportunity hasn’t gone yet. Plans like Project Big Picture have only offered fuel rather than solutions.

There is still a stand-off. A huge problem is that the game ultimately needs a much fairer redistribution system. That just isn't in sight, not even in ongoing negotiations within Uefa about solidarity payments, and it means financial gaps won't be lessened but actually increased. Figures from the European Leagues body show the top 10 clubs in the top five leagues are still growing at a faster rate than anyone else. In a year when football has received it's biggest ever shake-up, the structures that allow the current status quo have actually been maintained - and arguably strengthened as they have survived all this.

Along the same lines, the year ends with so much football being played - some of that of course a knock-on of the long absence of games - to the point it’s almost too much. That applies to the players, but also the spectators.

Many are desperate to go to games in the flesh, but there is the danger of it becoming greatly diluted as a TV spectacle. Without supporters in the stands, so many games are just interchangeable "content" that could have been played anywhere.

Socially distanced fans return to stadiums (Getty Images)

That is an irony, given the situation we had from March to May.

It is also an illustration of the game’s greed. No one has been willing to give on any quarter, to the detriment of the game as a whole. They are trying to play out the calendar as normal, despite two months less.

And yet, bringing so many of these themes together, 2020 fully emphasised the pure social power football can have.

This was most visible in the initiatives of Jordan Henderson at the start of the crisis, the irrepressible Marcus Rashford throughout the year, and most of all how the whole game took on a live issue by taking the knee.

Poor-faith arguments have attempted to diminish and dismiss this as some kind of manipulation by Marxist groups. That is wrong. This is nothing more than players recognising and wanting to aid the real-world fight against inequality, with the realisations - most tied to the death of George Floyd - another consequence of the Covid crisis, and a display of just how much the game reflects and extends the real world. Many say they have been inspired by football’s willingness to speak up, that this is the new spirit of the times.

The game is no separate bubble, despite the Covid protocols, despite the money.

The last year has made that clear. It has brought the game to its knees, but forced it to take a stand.

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