Soccer leagues are planning to finish their seasons — but should we actually want them to?

Ryan Bailey
·6-min read

There will be no more top-flight soccer in Belgium, the Netherlands or France this season.

In much of the rest of the world, however, the resumption of soccer remains high on the agenda — at least for those in charge.

The Bundesliga is planning to become the first major soccer league to return on May 15, in spite of a COVID-19 outbreak at Cologne’s training ground. MLS, meanwhile, is allowing its players to return to training on a voluntary basis this week, while the Premier League has released plans for “Project Restart,” which outlines a strategy to conclude the 2019-20.

Ideas for enhanced safety protocols, neutral venues and even shortened matches are being floated to aid the return of the world’s most popular league.

From a sporting perspective, it’s important for league seasons to conclude, particularly the European campaigns that only have around 25 percent of games remaining. In the Premier League, leaving Liverpool six points from their first title in 30 years would be problematic for the integrity of the league. European qualifications, promotions and relegations also require resolution.

Furthermore, there are economic considerations to be made. Conditions may not be ideal for sporting events to be held, but if we wait until they are — when a COVID-19 vaccine is available — then a large proportion of teams will be forced out of business.

Liverpool clinching the Premier League title at an empty Anfield wouldn't make for dramatic television, and it would be risky for the players. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)
Liverpool clinching the Premier League title at an empty Anfield wouldn't make for dramatic television, and it would be risky for the players. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Lower league sides cannot continue long-term without playing games. And top-flight teams, who only generate 13 percent of their income through matchday revenue (per the BBC), need to play to offset their losses. Behemoths like Manchester City and Liverpool may be able to weather the storm regardless, but the likes of Bournemouth and Brighton need TV revenue payments to keep operating.

And of course, there is a continuing narrative of sports-starved fans, who crave the return of live action to their TV screens.

But is this narrative entirely true? Do we really want soccer to come back this season, in its truncated and fan-free guise?

One thing is for certain: The experience will not be as entertaining on TV without real-life fans in the stadiums adding atmosphere to the spectacle. Those who watched behind-closed-doors matches in the Champions League or Bundesliga before the shutdown will attest that it is simply not as fun in an empty stadium. Match-going fans may be second-class citizens when it comes to the priorities of big teams these days, but they are certainly integral to the entire viewing experience.

Will a Liverpool title win feel as substantive with the celebrations of players echoing off of plastic and concrete in a cavernous arena? The title-winning match may feel more like a training exhibition, and the subsequent lack of open-top bus celebrations on Merseyside will only make the experience feel more hollow.

The return of soccer will feel even less fun for fans of teams with little to play for. Teams in the middle of their respective tables figure to deliver an underwhelming product, in suitably underwhelming circumstances.

It is almost certainly true that the quality of product on the field will be lower — and not just because of the lack of atmosphere in the stadiums.

With two months without games or training, most players will lack match fitness upon their return. A few weeks of socially distanced and highly restrictive training is unlikely to result in a world-class output on the field.

Not only will the players lack match fitness, but they will be playing with fear for their safety. It seems to be an afterthought that we are asking professional athletes to engage in a contact sport during a time of pandemic, just for the sake of our entertainment.

Sergio Aguero is among the players who have expressed deep concern for returning to action.

“The majority of players are scared because they have family; they have children, they have babies, parents,” Aguero said.

His Manchester City teammate Kevin De Bruyne, meanwhile, has a pregnant wife and a young child, whom he would be expected to leave behind for upwards of seven weeks to complete the season in isolation. He admitted to Belgian TV that he would not be willing to do this.

De Bruyne’s scenario demonstrates a key issue with the return of the game: All players must adhere to isolation protocols, and if they do not, the house of cards comes falling down. The likes of Jack Grealish, Moise Kean and Kyle Walker have already demonstrated that not all Premier League soccer players can be trusted to do so.

Do we really want the league to return to put the health and safety of the players at risk? Doctors from all 20 Premier League clubs have co-signed a letter to state that Project Restart is unsafe, which dents the desire to see the game return soon.

It’s important to note that it’s not just the players who are being put in a difficult situation. Support staff, broadcast crew, stadium personnel and medical workers would also be at risk with the resumption of league action.

The idea of restarting soccer also appears unsavory in the context of the current global situation. The United Kingdom now has the highest coronavirus-related death toll in Europe, while United States figures have surpassed 70,000.

Personal protective equipment and medical resources are in short supply, while mass testing is sorely lacking in many nations whose leagues intend to restart. It feels questionable to contemplate diverting resources to the resumption of sports when people are still succumbing to the infection in significant numbers.

As the soccer-free weeks go by, the appetite for the return of this season seems to be dissipating. There are several obstacles standing in the way of its resumption, and the resulting product may not be as thrilling as initially anticipated.

The integrity of league play is important, and lovers of the beautiful game will long for its return. Now, however, it may be more important to take time and reflect on what is really important.

Then, when it is safe and the circumstances feel right, we go again.

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