In normal times, last experienced in Britain only a week ago, it might have been fanciful to imagine that in some unprecedented global crisis football’s squabbling and often self-seeking administrators would step up and behave like leaders.
Of course, faced with an unthinkable pandemic they have had little other choice than to put their sport immediately on hold but as they did so it was almost weird to see them striking the right tone.
The sentiment that public health is the overriding priority, that football cannot happen in these circumstances but that it has a cherished place in life and will assert its best values of solidarity, came in a flurry when Uefa held its crunch meeting of all national football associations on Tuesday.
Karren Brady, the West Ham vice-chair, had been loudly booed before for suggesting in her column in the Sun that the season should be considered null and void, although she was not the only decision-maker believing that to be the case. After seeing how that went down and for other reasons sporting, human and pragmatic, the English game expressed a determination to get the season played if at all possible and in any available circumstances.
On 3 March at the Uefa congress in Amsterdam, the European governing body’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, made an odd, rambling speech that purported to be an affirmation of football’s best values – “purpose over profit,” he said. But it was widely taken by followers of all the dismal politics in the past two years to be a veiled attack on the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, although he was not named, for his expansionist Club World Cup plans, which Ceferin saw as a tank-parking threat on the manicured lawns of the Champions League’s own expansion plans.
Exactly two weeks later, there was Ceferin on Tuesday, holding a tele-conference with all of Europe’s 55 national associations including the FAs of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, at which they agreed to vacate the month scheduled for the Euros in the hope of helping some normality to return, at least to the world’s most popular sport, by the summer. And there was Ceferin in the statement sent out by Uefa, the silly turf wars set aside for now, thanking everybody involved in making the necessary decision quickly, including Infantino by name.
“I would like to thank Fifa and its president, Gianni Infantino, who has indicated it will do whatever is required to make this new calendar work,” Ceferin said. “In the face of this crisis, football has shown its best side with openness, solidarity and tolerance.”
Ceferin, asked in an interview with Rob Harris of the Associated Press whether this crisis would provide “a pause” to consider the future structure of football in a more collaborative way, seemed to speak honestly when answering that he and others had been jolted out of their habitual political terrain and on to a recognition of their sport’s basic virtues.
“I don’t know what will happen concerning the football calendar,” he said, “but … what I saw today is that this situation brought us together – Uefa, leagues, clubs, other confederations, especially [the South American confederation] Conmebol which I would like to thank, because they agreed that if we move the Euro, they move the Copa [América]. If anything, then we saw that our ecosystem is fragile, that it’s one ecosystem, that we have to act responsibly and that we have to help each other. There is no more time for egotistic ideas. There is no more time for selfishness. So in a way, you’re right. This is a reset of world football.”
Infantino followed that with a statement which included a $10m contribution to the World Health Organization Covid‑19 solidarity response fund, sensible administrative moves and another statement of values: “unity, solidarity, a shared sense of responsibility.”
Peanuts, some might scoff, but it seemed like leadership in a time when Boris Johnson’s government was still not following WHO advice to tackle the pandemic with a mass testing strategy to identify carriers of the virus.
Many of those involved in the crisis talks at international level and in the emergency conference calls held from empty offices in England have said the mood of cooperation is genuine, not just words set out for show in public statements.
All of this has a terribly long way to go but some leadership was shown this week and that was actually surprisingly heartening.