Robin Sainty: Why a bit of devil worship could prove costly

Watford's Troy Deeney has stayed away from training because of family health concerns Picture: PA

Watford's Troy Deeney has stayed away from training because of family health concerns Picture: PA - Credit: PA

After a period of fence sitting, the Premier League clubs have voted for players to return to training, albeit non-contact, and the Bundesliga has returned to action in Germany. Whether these are sensible moves will be something that only time will tell.

A member of Liverpool's staff arrives at the club's Melwood training ground wearing a face mask and

A member of Liverpool's staff arrives at the club's Melwood training ground wearing a face mask and gloves Picture: PA - Credit: PA

Certainly the fact that the first round of testing of Premier League players found six players at three different clubs had the virus seemed to create a very different response to the single positive test on Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta in March which precipitated the suspension of the game in this country.

Clearly there is a growing element of “virus fatigue” which is evident both in the number of people generally failing to respect social distancing and those who see the test results as an indication that we are moving towards a “new normal” in which sport can safely return, albeit with no spectators in the grounds.

People are bored and want live sport as entertainment, while the fans of promotion- or title-chasing clubs see their potential glory as being the overriding consideration, but Troy Deeney’s recent refusal to return to training because he has a young baby who has had breathing difficulties as well as the disproportionately high risk of COVID-19 to people of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) origin is an indication that there is still plenty of disquiet amongst those at the sharp end of the game’s return.

This was confirmed last week by Brendan Schwab, chief executive of the World Players’ Association, the umbrella organisation for more than 100 unions, including the players’ global body FIFPro, who said: “Extensive measures are being developed aimed at preventing COVID-19 from entering or spreading throughout the sports environment. These measures, however, do not fully address the potential impact of the disease on individuals who contract it and how symptoms can be treated. Recent research suggests that athletes may be particularly vulnerable, especially to lung and organ damage, which may be very serious and even career-ending.”

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What he’s referring to is research by Italian immunologists and lung specialists which suggests that the level of strenuous and extended exercise undertaken by elite athletes makes them more likely to inhale virus particles and direct them to the lower areas of the lung so that the virus starts to attack there, rather than in the upper airways, creating a potentially much more dangerous illness. Worryingly, it also suggests that this can happen even if a player is completely asymptomatic.

This may well be the background to the case of the 23-year-old Montpellier midfielder Junior Sambia, who was placed in a medically-induced coma last month after testing positive and developing complications.

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The medical arguments will rumble on, but this week we also got a taste of what we could be watching for the foreseeable future as the Bundesliga returned behind closed doors. I won’t pretend that I watched much of it myself, but in the words of German football expert Constantin Eckner: “This kind of sterile football is isolated from any outside emotion. Fans do not only scream and cheer throughout the match, but they also react to success and failure. Behind closed doors, the matches feel less consequential, despite the outcome of the season still being at stake.”

Even in the limited sections of games that I saw, it was clear that the level of intensity was well below the norm, and the pace of the game was more like that of a pre-season friendly. It was a pale shadow of what football should be like, and yet this is how the fate of numerous clubs, City included, will be decided if the Premier League is able to follow the path of the Bundesliga. Not for nothing do the Germans call these fan-free matches Geisterspiele (ghost games) But, as if the health risks and utterly artificial nature of games weren’t depressing enough, Tuesday brought the news that broadcasters will be demanding rebates of £36m for every week that the Premier League season extends beyond July 16 in addition to the £300m to £350m already due for being unable to provide the remaining games in their original format.

Given that it took the Bundesliga five weeks from the point at which the Premier League is now to restarting games, and the fact that it is expected that the remaining games will be spread over a period of six or seven weeks, that could be very expensive and is going to significantly increase the pressure on clubs’ finances.

It certainly removes any lingering belief that the broadcasters have any real interest in the long-term well-being of the game, although it is of course possible that this is simply an opening gambit in an attempt to use the crisis to ensure that the terms of the contract favour them even more.

Regardless of motive, I don’t think any of us will be surprised at the hard headedness of the likes of Sky, but it is difficult to feel a huge amount of sympathy for the Premier League which has been happy enough to make itself more and more financially dependent on the broadcasters while doing little to persuade its clubs to adopt a more sustainable financial approach.

Ultimately, if you sell your soul to the devil you can hardly complain when he comes to collect.

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