Rules, Rescheduled Games and a Covenant Worth Preserving

Rules, Rescheduled Games and a Covenant Worth Preserving

Rules, Rescheduled Games and a Covenant Worth Preserving

Rules, Rescheduled Games and a Covenant Worth Preserving

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The Premier League Handbook is so long that calling it a handbook is, in many ways, a bit of a stretch. It runs, all told, to 665 pages. It falls somewhere between a particularly dense instruction manual and an especially didactic piece of scripture.

It lays out, in a sea of sections and subsections, exactly how a club must be run if it wishes to be part of the most popular domestic sports league in the world. And exactly means exactly: No stone is left unturned, no detail uncovered.

What players must wear while performing off-field duties: clothing bearing the club’s crest. How long a postgame warm-down can last: 15 minutes, and not a second longer. What teams are and are not allowed to show on the big screens in their home stadiums: no rolling live footage, thank you very much.

The only thing that is not included, as became abundantly clear on the evening of March 13, is what might happen if the league season cannot be completed. Section C — “The League Championship” — had nothing to say on the matter.

The handbook will, presumably, be updated; there is already a 50-page appendix governing how teams should safely return to training in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the season’s suspension more than two months ago. That will be done either by decree or according to precedent, but the absence of such instruction felt then (and it still feels now) like something of an oversight.

The arrival of an aggressive pathogen is, after all, not the only thing that might have caused the cessation of soccer. War has done it in the past, civil unrest has done it elsewhere, and player strikes have managed it in other sports. Given soccer’s economics, it is not entirely unimaginable that the collapse of a broadcast partner might pose an existential threat, too.

But the handbook did not offer guidance. This was the one eventuality nobody seemed to have considered. It spoke only silence. And so, for the last two months, there has been nothing but noise.

Over the course of hours and hours of meetings — and days and weeks of whisper and suggestion and briefing — the executives of the Premier League have tried to conjure an answer to the one question none of them had ever previously felt the need to ask.

Only on Thursday, as the end of May drew close, did they land upon one. In Germany, the Bundesliga had already been playing for two weeks. In Spain, the game’s authorities had long since committed themselves to playing out the season. In France, where the league’s hand was forced by the government, Paris St.-Germain had already been named champion.

Now, at last, England has a way forward, too: The Premier League will return on June 17, as long as it retains political permission and there is no spike in either the positive tests returned by players or the infection rate across Britain.

If the league cannot return, the season will be determined on a points-per-game basis (effectively freezing the table as it stands, with one or two exceptions). It will name a champion. It will relegate its three worst teams. At last, the idea of “null and void” is off the table.

For a while, that seemed to be the preferred solution of a number of teams who exist entirely to play soccer. For some time, there has been a constituency in the Premier League to whom all that matters is being there: not excelling, not winning games, not entertaining anyone, but simply existing in the top flight of English soccer. Null and void seemed to be the natural conclusion of that approach: It did not matter if anyone played soccer at all, it turned out, as long as they could keep cashing those television checks.

It was initially dressed up in an understandable, fairly compelling, morality: The very idea that soccer should return was almost offensive, they said. Then, later: The idea that the season should be played out in empty stadiums, compromising its integrity, was unfair, they said. Then, later still: Soccer could be played without fans, they said, but not at neutral venues; or it could be played at neutral venues, but nobody could be relegated.

There is merit to some of these arguments. Certainly, in April, it felt distasteful to try to map out the return of a mere sport (we have established previously that it is morally OK to miss sports, no matter what else is going on) as the pandemic raged at its peak and it seemed there was no end to the nightmare.

Less significantly, the Bundesliga’s experience does suggest that the absence of fans has a dramatic impact on results: Home-field advantage seems, almost overnight, to have disappeared in Germany. And it is true that the desire to play games at neutral venues — in case crowds gather outside stadiums — is, in essence, an egregious insult to those fans upon whom the entire edifice rests.

That those arguments have not won the day, though, is a relief. Not because the only “fair” way to settle the season was always to play it out. Not because of the economic imperative — for the health of the clubs and, to some extent, the game as a whole — to find a way back.

And not because it is necessarily right that soccer will return. It remains, after all, a delicate balance. There is no guarantee that the English — or even the German — season will be able to finish. It may well be that one or both will be decided, in the end, off the field, by some mathematical formula.

But that is vastly preferable to voiding it, to scratching it from the record books, pretending it never happened, starting over whenever we can. Not because that was never really necessary, or because it is inherently unfair, or because it prioritizes things that did not happen over things that did. No, it is preferable for a much more fundamental reason.

There is a covenant between fans and the sports they follow. It assures that what the fans are watching, what they are investing their time and money in, counts for something. It matters. It has meaning — an artificial meaning, something that we impose, rather than something inherent, but a meaning nonetheless.

To write off the season, then, would not only strip the first nine months of this season of that meaning, it would also jeopardize the meaning of any season in the future. It would make it hard to invest financially in a season ticket or a television subscription. More important, frankly, it would make it hard to invest emotionally in a team again.

Why would you, after all, if someone might tell you a few months later that what you were watching happened, but didn’t count, didn’t mean anything? Voiding the season would have ruptured the bond we have with the sport. One of the rationales you hear, frequently, from those who would have abandoned it is that — at a time like this — soccer doesn’t matter. Cancellation would have been confirmation that it doesn’t matter at any time.

That, perhaps, is what the revised Premier League handbook should reflect. Just an addendum to Section C: a clause that says, in case the worst should happen again, what you are watching, what you are playing in, what you are part of, cannot be extinguished by some force majeure. It will all, in the end, count for something.

There is a golden rule of the internet. It is not, despite what a lot of people think, Godwin’s Law. It is this: If you put something online, at some point in the process some man — and it is, essentially, always a man — will hijack it for the purposes of some form of sexual gratification.

And so nobody, but nobody, should have been surprised on Thursday that when the Danish club AGF Aarhus invited fans to follow its first game of the resumed season on Zoom, two men had to be cut from the feed by the club’s moderator for exposing themselves. (Thankfully, before their little stunt had been seen by anyone.)

It is a bleak reality, don’t get me wrong. It isn’t funny. I can’t explain it. I don’t even begin to understand it. But it should also not distract from the fact that there is something encouraging in Aarhus’s experiment. If we accept that fans are not going to be in stadiums for some time, then clubs, leagues and broadcasters should be looking for ways not so much to soften the blow, but to adapt.

In Germany, the league’s broadcaster is offering ambient crowd noise to viewers watching at home. In South Korea, it was pumped directly into the stadium. Bringing fans into the stands through Zoom is a valiant attempt to go a step farther. (Our friend Tariq Panja wrote about the AGF match, and the video is fun.)

All of these modifications are anathema to the purist, of course. But — to reuse a phrase — the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Fans cannot go into stadiums. Soccer can spend the coming months bemoaning that. Or it can find a way to make this reality as palatable as possible. Who knows? Perhaps some of the ideas might last longer than the crisis.

There was a suggestion, presented to me by a friend not long ago, that could solve so many problems, and that made such perfect sense, that it was inevitable, really, that English soccer should ignore it completely.

It ran like this. The glamour and significance of the F.A. Cup have been fading for years. It now ranks, for most teams, as either a nuisance or an afterthought. It’s a competition for the reserves and the squad players and the stiffs. Many fans treat it with contempt. It serves, too often, as an unwelcome interruption of the league season.

But this year’s edition would need to be finished. So, rather than trying to squeeze it in amid a breathless schedule of Premier League games, why not wait? Why not allow the league to finish, and then play the last three rounds of the cup — quarterfinals, semifinals, final — in a single week, all at the same location?

It would be an emergency measure, of course, given the circumstances, but there is absolutely no reason this should not be how the F.A. Cup works in future. It is perfect: Rather than cluttering up the calendar and disfiguring the league through March and April, the cup can be put on ice from the quarterfinal stage. Everyone gets a bit of breathing room, some time to think.

And then, once the league is done, when fans around the world are searching for something to watch, you have a week of high-stakes cup games: a compelling mini-tournament that functions, as the cup final always did, as the natural conclusion and climax to the season. It is simple, and it is perfect.

On Friday, the F.A. confirmed it was doing something else entirely. Some people just do not want to be helped.

Last week’s column on the effect of Athletic Bilbao’s buy-local approach to transfers prompted quite a few questions. Patricia Zengerle had mixed feelings about the idea, asking: “In an international, multicultural sport, does the team stay white white white?” The answer is not entirely — Athletic’s star performer this year has been the striker Iñaki Williams — and the policy does not officially see color, as it were. But (without having conducted a survey) I would guess that Athletic’s team is whiter than most in Spain, and has been for some time.

Daniel Arbelaez wrote that the “underlying elements of nationalism” in the policy were “disturbing.” Edward Baker pointed out that Athletic’s definition of “Basque” can be traced to Sabino Arana, the father of Basque nationalism, who is now widely regarded as a problematic figure. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, charming about this repulsive blood-and-soil nationalism and its expression in the history of Athletic de Bilbao,” Baker wrote.

There is, of course, an uncomfortable undertone to the roots of Athletic’s approach, and one that should have been acknowledged; these are valid critiques. So, too, is the reminder from the author Phil Ball that other teams in the Basque region tend to suffer from Athletic’s predation of the best local talent.

It would not be possible for Athletic’s model to be implemented directly elsewhere; in an ideological sense, it would not necessarily be desirable. Last week’s column was an attempt not to condone that, but rather to suggest that what could be learned is that it is possible both to find pleasure in and to take pride from a sports team while accepting that it will not win all of the time.

Mere mention of Sporting Clube de Portugal, too, encouraged Francisco Valente — and he was not alone — to set me right. “The reason we don’t use Sporting Lisbon is simple: We are proud to support a club that, despite its Lisbon origins, became a national one, bringing together supporters from all corners of our small country,” he wrote. He’s right, too. It turned out it was quite a bright idea.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for all the messages. As ever, ideas, hints, tips and assessments of controversial Spanish historical figures are all welcome at, or on Twitter. We talked about how coaches manage players on this week’s Set Piece Menu. And feel free to send your friends and relatives here, and tell them it has made lockdown a little bit more bearable for you.

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