It is now 10 weeks since league football was last played in England, the longest suspension of the game since the inauguration of the League in 1888 (although there used to be a respectful pause for three months in the summer for cricket). Even during the wars, football did not stop for as long as this. As the Bundesliga resumes and the Premier League steps up its plans for a restart, it’s worth considering why. Money may be a prime driving force now, but that hasn’t always been the case; since it was invented there has been an urge to get football played.
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The following day, there was a full English league programme. A day later the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, large public gatherings were suspended and the season abandoned. Yet within two months, regional leagues had been established. Arsenal, for instance, hammered Sunderland 5-2 on 2 September and then beat Charlton 8-4 in their inaugural southern league fixture on 21 October. It is difficult to be sure of attendances, but in excess of 10,000 turned up for both their games against West Ham.
The War Cup final on 8 June 1940 – which kicked off at 6.30pm despite fears of bombing raids – drew 42,300 to Wembley, the restrictions on public gatherings long since lifted. The remarkable aspect of football in the second world war is how much of it there was. In Germany, they kept playing until the end of April 1945. In France, war champions were declared each year, although the 1943-44 season was incomplete. The Netherlands missed only one season, Italy two.
Hungary was invaded twice, first by the Germans and then by the Soviets, and yet football never stopped. At times the juxtaposition of detail becomes absurd. On 6 December 1944, with Nazi-occupied Budapest under bombardment from the Red Army, the Ujpest coach, Geza Kertesz, who was working with a resistance group that had been supplying details on troop movements to the United States, took a training session then held a press conference previewing the upcoming derby against Ferencvaros. That evening he was arrested by local fascists and handed over to the Gestapo; two months later he was executed as the Germans prepared to retreat.
Which tell us what, exactly? First, that football is resilient. It adapts to circumstance and carries on, whether that means rejigging competitions and regulations, guest players or limited crowds. Second, and perhaps more pertinently, there has always been a demand for it, from both authorities and fans.
After the German invasion of Ukraine, a league was quickly established as part of a process of “normalisation” – which is what led ultimately to the “death match” between Start, a bakery side that featured a number of former Dynamo Kyiv players, and a team representing the Luftwaffe. The logic that encouraged the Hungarian authorities to keep football going is the same that led the British government to waive the restrictions on crowds so people could still gather to watch football. And that is the impact football has on morale.
This is not something to be treated glibly – and there is an obvious difference with wartime in the risk of the virus being transmitted by the act of playing. Danny Rose is right to fear players being forced back prematurely. But just because Dominic Raab says something doesn’t necessarily make it superficial nonsense; it can also be glib for amateur virologists to dismiss out of hand the attempt to create a safe environment for football.
There was much discussion of a poll last week that suggested 73% of people did not anticipate their morale being lifted by the return of football. But 19% did, which seemed even more remarkable: one in five people – 13 million Britons – think they will be happier with football to watch and, perhaps more important, discuss.
It may be that any football that is played ends up being tepid, that the sense of artificiality is overpowering, the absence of fans a huge turn-off. Once Liverpool have sealed their Premier League title, how engaging will the battle against relegation or for qualification to the Champions League be, particularly when it’s far from clear if or in what form next season’s Champions League will take place? On the other hand, the FA Cup may find itself reinvigorated.
And, of course, the how is hugely complex. But if the infection rate falls, if the resources are available and if a safe environment can be created, then why would football not be considering a resumption? Every other industry is assessing how to restart as lockdown begins to ease: why not football?
The Bundesliga’s return is a huge test. Borussia Dortmund’s managing director, Carsten Cramer, has said the protocols to protect players went far beyond the safety measures in most other industries. There’s no reason for the Premier League not to match those standards. But Cramer also noted that, on top of the human cost, “if we fail, the problems afterwards [for football] will be even bigger than before”.
Football was right to stop when it did but it’s right for it to consider when and how it may return. Judging precisely when the risk has been sufficiently minimised is clearly enormously difficult, there is every reason for extreme caution, and players need to be fully involved in the process, but that doesn’t mean the assessment should be shirked. If the necessary threshold of safety can be achieved, the palliative effect of resumption is potentially huge. This is not just about the game or money.
CS Lewis observed that literature exists to remind us we are not alone. Football fulfils a similar function. It is the currency in which a vast amount of social interaction is conducted. Governments recognised that in times of crisis throughout the 20th century but football has never been bigger than it is now. After weeks of isolation, there has perhaps never been a time when it has been more important to remember we are not alone. Football can be an awful, self-interested, avaricious game at times but it can, perhaps, help with that.