Sport’s role as the great distraction reluctantly cancelled but it will be back | Barney Ronay | Sport

And, breathe. Preferably, it goes without saying, into a vacant space. At the end of a week when the sporting news cycle has seemed to pulse and spread and multiply like a malevolent bacillus, two things are abundantly clear. The correct decision on containment has – and this is important: only reluctantly – been made. And professional sport has never known a week like this.

But then, no one in Europe has known a week like this. Welcome to the world of the post-modern pandemic, where anxiety spreads ahead of the tideline, where unravelling the semiotics of plague and plague politics seems to be almost as pressing as the plague itself. And where even sport, the great distractor, can be cancelled at a stroke.

It became inevitable all Premier League football would be postponed once news broke of Mikel Arteta’s diagnosis on Thursday night. Uefa’s European competitions have followed. It is highly likely we will now see the postponement of the Euro 2020, a tournament designed during the financial crisis to take advantage of cheap and easy European travel, which now seems almost comically unfit for purpose.

There are some fortunate elements here. No major infrastructure has been built and no single host will have to bear the losses. In the end it took a global pandemic to ensure Michel Platini’s dunderheaded idea – and Gianni Infantino’s eager implementation – finally made sense.

At which point it is possible to see how the football season can be rejigged. There is now a chance the delayed leagues could be finished in mid-summer. There will be no robustness to any of this when it comes to seasonal rhythms, level paying fields and squad fitness. No doubt some will rail at perceived sporting injustice.

This is irrelevant. One benefit of force majeure is a sense of perspective, a reminder that football remains essentially a business of propelling a leather sphere into a netted rectangle. There is nothing to stop games resuming once public health advice allows it. On the other hand it may make better sense simply to dead-head the season. The circus will simply have to fit itself into the margins.

There will be a sharper sense of peril lower down the leagues. The experience of clubs deprived of vital matchday revenue – and often recklessly close to their financial limits – is likely to mirror problems in other sports. Rugby union’s Six Nations will hopefully succeed in finding a reduced window. Match revenues are vital to the sport, as is the micro-climate of hospitality and travel.

English cricket looks in a distinctly sickly place. This is already the worst possible season to have placed the entire summer sport in hock to a wildly optimistic marketing idea. It would be natural to assume that the ECB is insured should The Hundred be cancelled. But no policy will cover the loss of visibility or the opportunity cost of a project that has drawn so much energy its way. There must surely be a chance the non-existent sport with non-existent teams and non‑existent fans will never come into existence at all, that the Oval Invincibles will remain forever invincible, the Trent Rockets unlaunched.

There will be a clashing of gears over all this and no shortage of legal threats as time and resources are divvied up. Sport will survive. The beauty, the grace, the basic pleasure of these gaudy entertainments will remain unaffected. But a great deal of practical help will be required to ensure it is not offered only to those victims of this nasty little bug who can shout the loudest, that precarious livelihoods and the infrastructure of amateur sport are also protected.

For now there are plenty of unanswered questions and one in particular that is worth keeping in plain sight. Sport is prone to wildly overstating its importance at the best of times, interpreting all global events through its own prism. Racism, deadly viral flu, climate change: fine. But what’s the Premier League angle here? What does Danny Mills think?

And yet for for once sport is telling us something right now and something worth hearing. To date the most frequently-asked question has been: why did it take so long for major events to be postponed? Italy, Spain and the USA were all closed for business. Why did it take the diagnosis of active participants to get the Premier League and Football League to postpone their programme?

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These are good questions, deserving of a proper answer. To date analysis has centred on the usual hand-wringing over poor leadership and corporate greed. Both of these things, the founding vices of Big Sport, are, of course present. But the key point is that sport has simply been following government advice, reflecting the fact the UK is behind almost every other nation in deciding public gatherings in a time of plague may not be a good idea.

Again, this is policy, not an oversight. The government has been relying on data that suggests sporting events don’t spread contagion the way you might expect, with one pertinent example the measles epidemic around the 2006 World Cup in Germany. But look properly at Thursday’s government briefing and there is another line of reasoning too, albeit one that is unpalatable to some.

The UK has embraced the notion that herd immunity can be developed by exposing healthy hosts to the virus and surrounding it with those who have already processed it through their system. In effect, the government wants you to contract this disease. Sport was to be left alone as part of this, both a high-functioning industry and an existing tool of transmission through the entire populace that the government believes is inevitable.

There may be great virtues in this approach: expose the healthy, cocoon the weak. But was any of this made clear as sporting events were left open? How many present realised the government wasn’t telling them they were safe, but instead allowing them to participate as units of everyday transmission, with uncomfortable echoes of the way spectators at the sporting disasters of earlier decades were seen as a collective proletarian substance to be dispersed and managed.

Either way, the infection of players and managers was always likely to halt this process. In the meantime, as that unplanned hiatus stretches away, it is important to remember that things recover as well as fall apart, that anxiety is itself contagious. And that like all things – seasons, teams, interrupted dreams of glory – this nasty little bug will also pass.

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