Robin Sainty: Integrity is in real danger of flying out of the window

Players at Bundesliga team FC Schalke 04 exercises during a training session. German football offici

Players at Bundesliga team FC Schalke 04 exercises during a training session. German football officials are hoping to restart the league without spectators this month Picture: AP - Credit: AP

If there is one phrase that is guaranteed to grind my gears it’s “the integrity of the league” used as a justification by those intent on finishing the football season at all costs.

FC Schalke head coach David Wagner watches his players during a training session Picture: AP

FC Schalke head coach David Wagner watches his players during a training session Picture: AP - Credit: AP

It infuriates me because it implies that there is some sort of noble principle behind the growing desperation to play the remaining games in any way, and at any venue, possible, yet not so long ago even minor changes to VAR couldn’t be countenanced because of the self-same “integrity of the league”.

The latest gambit seems to be the suggestion that the return of football, albeit in a totally artificial and sanitised (in every sense of the word) form will somehow lift the morale of the nation. However, I don’t really see the prospect of tuning in to watch half-fit players running around an empty stadium having the same sort of effect on me that Vera Lynn warbling “The White Cliffs of Dover” apparently had on my parents.

Let’s be absolutely clear here: football returning in this way has nothing to do with anything other than money, so it was good to see a voice of sanity from Watford chief executive Scott Duxbury this week when he said: “Football, for me now, just needs to be put to one side. I feel uncomfortable at this stage even talking about football as a narrative, because there are people dying every day.”

There is, unsurprisingly, concern among players too, with the world players’ union FIFPro saying that the return of football risks sending a “bad signal”.

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Of course, the other side of the coin is that more clubs will be facing extinction the longer that football is absent, and while that is truly regrettable it surely has to be secondary to the health of everyone potentially involved in a restart?

Across Europe there are mixed messages. The Dutch and French leagues have been scrapped, and in the case of the latter a Montpellier player is in a medically-induced coma after a positive coronavirus test.

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However, Germany has been considering a return next month with The Independent suggesting that matches would be limited to having fewer than 300 people in each stadium with players being tested every three days and isolated in camps for the duration of the season, a similar format to that reportedly being considered by the Premier League.

However, the fact that football is a full contact sport with sweat, blood and saliva being easily transferred means that if the virus finds its way into a stadium then players’ health is at risk, despite all those precautions.

We know that the disease can kill people of all ages, so what if a player or official picked up the disease, developed complications and died? Is that a risk worth taking just to round off a competition in which most of us have lost all interest in the light of what’s happening in the world?

And if that seems a little over dramatic, bear in mind that Michel d’Hooge, Fifa’s chief doctor, said this week: “There is a risk and it is not a risk that has small consequences. It can have consequences of life and death and that is why I am so careful, and I ask everyone to be very careful before deciding to play again.”

It would also be interesting to know if players would even be insured to play in such circumstances.

What’s more, if the Premier League gets its way and restarts in mid-June the game will have been suspended for three months, equivalent to the normal gap between league seasons.

Anyone who has ever played the game will know that there is a huge difference between being fit and being match fit, because the latter only comes from playing, yet players would be pushed straight into highly competitive matches which are likely to be crammed into a very short time period without the usual warm-up games. That could easily lead to serious, and perhaps career-ending injuries, and they will even be denied the adrenaline surge that comes from playing in front of a big crowd.

I accept that there would be difficult decisions on titles, promotions and relegations and I also accept that there is no decision that can possibly be fair to all parties, but surely common-sense dictates that this season cannot be completed in any meaningful way?

Footballers aren’t commodities, they are people with families, and we have no right to expect them to take any more risks than we ourselves are prepared to do.

And what about the sides in mid-table who won’t go up or down regardless of what happens in the remaining games? For them end of season games are meaningless even in normal circumstances, so how would their players feel about being put at risk for so little purpose?

Then, of course, there is the issue of fans congregating outside grounds where games are being played behind closed doors. In fact, wherever you look there are problems with no obvious solutions.

For two decades the Premier League has been an increasingly alluring honey pot that has grown ever richer whilst becoming more and more dependent upon broadcasters’ money, but now it cannot provide a product in return that honey pot is rapidly turning into financial quicksand that could suck clubs into oblivion.

It seems crass to talk about any sort of positive emerging from the pandemic but maybe if it means that football moves to a more realistic financial model then that at least would be something to celebrate, but that’s an issue for the future.

In the meantime I don’t want to see the game risk people’s health in a reckless, money driven effort to complete a season that no longer has the merest vestige of “integrity”. The Premier League is at serious risk of making itself a pariah over this.

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