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Women's Champions League

Football and COVID-19

Champions League spread

Like a lit match flicked at a box of oil-soaked rags, COVID-19 burned through Italy at an accelerated rate first forcing several regions into lockdown before the entire country ground to a halt. The respiratory virus that has claimed a higher death rate in the elderly, swept through the European country known for its ageing population, leaving carnage in its wake.

With an incubation time of up to two weeks, no one knew it was already in Bergamo when 44,000 Atalanta fans descended on to the San Siro for the biggest game in the club’s modest history. The jubilation that night turning to horror as people began to realise just how quickly the virus had spread through individuals in the crowd who unwittingly infected people in their lives for the second wave of the infected to spread it on and on and on. The match thought to be where a Spanish journalist – the second confirmed case in Valencia – became infected.

There was no malice in the 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans who travelled to Liverpool earlier in the month, they weren’t there to start fights or injure but their very presence carried its own dangerous undertones. Madrid was a Coronavirus hot-spot and it was well possible for some travelling to be carrying the virus, ready to transmit it to others.

With the Parc des Princes closed to fans for Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund, the fans still turned out in their droves to cheer their team on from outside the stadium. Parisians milling together, spreading unseen pathogens.

Today’s reality

Now we all sit in our homes, confined to our four-walled prisons, wondering when normalcy will return, when (if?) the world will come out the other side of this pandemic. We miss going out, interacting with others in pubs, parks and stadiums.

The advice has been to act as if everyone you meet is carrying COVID-19: that man in the supermarket stockpiling loo roll? Infected but asymptomatic. Mrs. Smith from three doors down, out walking her dog? She’ll start coughing in three days but won’t require hospitalisation. You might have the virus, I might have it, someone in your house might, maybe that nice nurse whom you became friendly with after your appendectomy.

In staying in, reducing your physical interaction with others, keeping your distance when in public if you need to go out, you’re protecting yourself and others. But that damn two-week incubation time, the world can’t just go into shut down for a fortnight, not if we’re all going to start showing symptoms when we come out of lockdown. So, it becomes a month, five weeks, six… But then what? We won’t all just go back to work, for a start, not all of us will still have jobs, but that normalcy, that day to day that all of us know in our own different ways will change.

As for football?

As for all of us sport addicts? For all of us who, even if we don’t personally go to games, still take a deep interest in sport, we all have the clubs we support, who we want to see prosper. How does sport return in this world? Will it all be behind closed doors? What of the half-finished leagues?

That is the question, not just of the day, but the month as well as the coming weeks. It was announced earlier that all football below the national league in the men’s game and below the Women’s Championship would be voided. Whilst the FA have yet to decide on what to do at higher levels, the announcement [that hasn’t been warmly received] is at least definitive and helps clubs plan for what’s next – which could be anything from closing doors altogether to simply planning for next season.

Following on from the announcement, Barnsley WFC have released an emotive statement and although some of the points raised are debatable, the club point out that clubs from the third and fourth tiers were not consulted which raises serious issues. Maybe the most striking line in the statement is, “We are fully behind all measures relating to Covid-19, and we only want the season to continue when it’s safe to.”

Because just when would it be safe to resume the season? As said, we are a long way out from any kind of normalcy returning to life, anything that would promote a gathering of people – even allowing for smaller crowds at women’s matches – seems further away still. The league can not go on indefinitely, higher up the pyramid there is the issue of competitions like the UEFA Champions League that relate to the previous season’s finish. Just as there is the question of players capped and youth and senior levels that will be called away for international football (when its deemed safe to return).

An idea is behind closed doors matches but, and this is a vital thing to remember, it’s never just 22 players involved in a match. It’s two full teams, coaches, support staff, officials, stewards, journalists, bus drivers and grounds staff. And away from the top level of professionals, those part-time footballers who mingle and clash on the pitch will have their lives outside of football, their work or education. Again, we can see how easy the virus could spread yet again.

No catch-all

There are certainly no quick fixes, but there are similarly no solutions that solve all problems and pacify all. Across the game, we’re seeing the effects of COVID-19, of those losing their jobs, of clubs threatening to close doors and again, of clubs looking at their women’s teams as fat that can be trimmed in a time of belt-tightening.

There has been the suggestion of calling time on active leagues and going off of the table as it stands – which for WSL would mean another title for Manchester City, or promotion to the Championship from Women’s National League Premier Division South for Crawley Wasps who are nine points clear of Watford who have three games in hand. There is the idea of using a PPG (points per game) calculation to determine the table but again, for those who’ve managed to avoid playing in the lower ranked teams through postponements, there is contention. And what of Liverpool men, all but crowned champions, should the Premier League season be called off or nullified, what of the would-be champions? Although it’s worth remembering, the vast swathes of money in the men’s game could very well decide how some leagues progress through this uncertain time.

As for Barnsley (top of WNL Division 1 North, tied for points with Leeds but with three games in hand) or Ipswich Town, hotly tipped for promotion from WNL D1 South-East with a one-point advantage on AFC Wimbledon and both with eight still to play. Or Wolverhampton at the WNL D1 Midlands summit or Sunderland atop the WNL PD North table, both comfortably clear of the chasing pack but mathematically possible of being caught. There is a feeling of being robbed, an unjust result handed to them, their players, staff and fans.

It is easy to be angry at the governing body of football, after all, especially in the women’s game, their recent meddling has seen a number of clubs get the short end of the stick. For Sunderland and Watford, there is likely a deeper frustration given it wasn’t so long ago that they were higher up the pyramid and the FA’s rejigging and need for licence application saw them tumble downwards. And not consulting teams in the third and fourth tiers of women’s football in this country seems like a serious oversight but the justification will be that the game is an amateur one.

Big decisions and small decisions

As we are constantly reminding ourselves, as we begin to get angry, there are bigger fish to fry, more important decisions to be made, like the health care workers who will be forced to play God during this pandemic. But sport remains an integral part of the lives of many, football, even for those down the pyramid can be a lifeline, a purpose.

For those who juggle football with jobs and/or education, diligently turning up at training tired from their day jobs and travel, who go through their drills and ready themselves for the weekend’s match. For those who travel up and down the country in the name of their love of the game, who squeeze precious time out of their lives to train or play (or coach). For the chance of promotion, many won’t ever reach that heady goal of professionalism, but their devotion runs deep and there is little that can be done about how cheated they may be feeling.

There are bigger and harder decisions being made around the world, and whilst voiding an amateur league isn’t even in the same postcode as deciding who gets the last available ventilator, it is a decision that will effect the lives of many. Just like all of those seemingly trivial decisions being made, they aren’t the life and death ones, but they are ones that will ripple through the lives of many.

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