We still don’t get it. Even now, as death tolls rise exponentially across Europe and the greatest economic crisis of our age deepens, the white lies persist. That the football season could be completed by mid‑July. That the Olympics could take place a week or two after. That a bumper summer of sport will give the nation the mother of all pick‑me‑ups. It is an epic delusion. And, frankly, we have had enough of them already.
Over the weekend I spoke to a leading expert, who is involved with the national response to the coronavirus pandemic, to ask him when sport as we know it – in front of packed crowds – might return. His response was sober and downbeat. “My expectation is that this is something that is going to be around for a long period of time,” he said. “There are no silver bullets on the horizon. We are talking months and months – and perhaps even next year and beyond.” Only charlatans, hucksters and superforecasters confidently claim to predict the future. But if we listen closely to the scientists and medical professionals we can anticipate what is coming next. Things will get worse.
Many more people will lose their lives. The NHS will be put under enormous strain. And even after the peak – whenever that is – it will take time for social distancing measures to be relaxed and for the coronavirus to be behind us.
The scientific expert I spoke to, on condition of anonymity, suggested that a best-case scenario was that an antibody test will be soon developed that will let us know if substantial numbers of the population have been infected and recovered. But, he stressed, it would probably still take six months for it to be developed, ramped up, and tested on the population.
Meanwhile a vaccine might not be ready for 18 months, given it will have to go through the necessary safety trials.
“We still have very little understanding of how prevalent Covid-19 is in the population,” he said. “And it may be that when we do have those tests, we’ll find out that, actually, there are huge numbers of people who have been exposed and have been asymptomatic and they are immune. That could be a game changer. But we just don’t know at this point. And it would be very reckless to assume that everything is going to go right after that.”
Even if football returns behind closed doors – the best‑case scenario – there are obvious issues. If a single player tests positive for the virus then their whole squad will have to self-isolate for a fortnight, elongating the season further. And having ambulances at matches will be seen as hugely irresponsible if the NHS is still under severe strain. As the scientist put it: “We are in a very bad place. And we haven’t even spoken about the impact on the economy. Potentially you’ve got people not being able to afford to go to football matches.”
Indeed as the crisis grows I wonder if our top clubs will start feeling a responsibility to help those lower down the food chain. If the Premier League clubs can fork out £250,000 each for Richard Scudamore’s £5m golden goodbye then surely they can find a pot of money to help lower league clubs.
More top players should also thinking about giving back. Every fan feels that they have a symbiotic relationship with their club; and without supporters paying for Sky Sports subscriptions and season tickets players’ salaries would be nowhere near as astronomical.
Maybe before posting videos on social media from their lavishly decorated houses more players could put their hands in their pockets? It’s not as if they can’t afford it. According to the recent Global Salary Survey, the average basic pay for a Premier League first-team squad member is £61,024 a week – and that is before appearance fees, bonuses and any benefits. That’s a cumulative £30m a week in basic wages for the Premier League teams’ 25-man squads. Imagine the difference if every player offered to give up one week’s pay to charity? True, over the weekend Manchester United and Manchester City players donated a combined £100,000 to help food banks. That news was welcome, but it was still a drop in the ocean.
At least on Sunday the International Olympic Committee acknowledged for the first time that the Tokyo Games could be delayed. The IOC has set itself a four-week deadline to decide. But given the widespread restrictions on public gatherings and closed training facilities are making it impossible for many athletes to prepare, Tokyo 2020 will surely morph into Tokyo 2021. Even if the virus has subsided in Japan come the summer, it will almost certainly linger in other countries. Would it really be wise to allow 10,000 athletes and close to a million spectators to fly in from across the globe?
The expert repeatedly emphasised how uncertain the future looks. There could be a second or third wave of the virus. It could mutate into something worse. However, when I asked him whether there was any chance that this season’s Premier League and Champions League might be finished soon, or the Olympics could take place as planned, he was absolutely clear. “I think it’s delusional to think it’s going to happen. If people are saying that they’ve got absolutely no idea about what’s about to hit them.”