There are two clear lessons we have learned from the pandemic: empty stadiums also empty football’s spirit, and leagues cannot be played in a normal condition if there is a permanent threat of disease. The European competitions, which were resumed with all possible precautionary measures, have had, in spite of that, isolated cases among the players. It is one more example that only a vaccine will give us a safe guarantee against COVID-19, but this solution can still take months or years. And such a long term represents a clear threat to football, which, without an audience, it not only loses part of its show, but it has less power of attraction over the fans. If this situation continues over time, this sport may even lose its prominence in society. Maybe the time has come to reform it.
One of the first to clearly perceive the threat of the pandemic was Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA. Even before the coronavirus was a threat, he called on all those responsible worldwide to rethink a series of questions on football, which had been postponed. He started by wondering how many matches a football player should play per year, how many tournaments we should have and what kind of competitions are needed for the future. Infantino suggested that maybe too much is being played in some parts of the world, and not enough in others. All these topics were part of a document called “Vision 2020-2023: Making football truly global”.
This document proposes a roadmap for football to be based on four pillars:
- Organising economically sustainable tournaments.
- Creating opportunities for federations to have FIFA tournaments
- Creating unique experiences for those who attend the stadium and for global audiences
- Fighting against racism and other forms of discrimination.
Initially, it seemed nothing more than a declaration of good intentions, until Infantino gave an interview to the Italian newspaper “La Gazzetta dello Sport”, ensuring that the number of teams participating in the championships also should be reduced, and only the bigger clubs should be chosen, which are the most capable of providing a good show.
Controversy begins, as it was easy to understand that this was leaving out of income from competitions the medium and small teams, which are the ones that are suffering the most from the loss of ticketing today. But according to the FIFA president, it is necessary to take this step back to save the Club World Cup and the World Cup. The revenues provided by both tournaments support youth academies for next-generation footballers, women’s football, and the federations of countries with fewer resources. In the month of March, this way of seeing things was a radical change of direction in FIFA, which has been following the opposite trend for years. With the purpose of improving business figures, it has been adding more and more teams, clubs, and tournaments. But what then seemed absurd today starts to seem logical.
We have ahead a horizon of closed-door competitions and stadiums that may not be filled again until there is a vaccine. That means at least another full season, and big economic losses that will affect more the smaller clubs, many of which may disappear. Should that happen, the proposal to reduce the number of teams will be imposed by the reality of this health crisis, not by FIFA. It seems to make sense then that the main international governance body, which groups national federations, has taken the initiative. It is not that world football has to be reformed, it is the upcoming reality which is going to change this sport, like so many other things in our society, and it is fundamental to anticipate and make decisions quickly.
The controversy from March looks very different nowadays, as FIFA has just launched the “Covid-19 Support Plan”, approved in July, and which will distribute $ 1.5 billion among all its federations. It is a system of subsidies and loans aimed at saving both professional and youth football, male and female. Its immediate aim will be to allow the resumption of competitions, to cover the cost of implementing anti-COVID prevention measures and to support the teams as the storm passes. At the same time, it is an example of the importance of international governance organisations, capable of taking control and reforming football, or any other sport, in order to protect it and also to make it grow. Even in situations like the one we are going through.