Updated: April 6, 2020 6:39:03 pm
By Rory Smith
At first glance, the problem is clear, and the problem is money. Soccer, at its rarefied heights, is awash with it: broadcasting deals and sponsorship agreements and corporate entertainment, all of it swilling through leagues and clubs, into the hands of players and executives and agents.
Particularly in the Premier League, everyone has grown fat on it, and now that the supply has been cut off, nobody wants to go hungry. Weeks after games were canceled and the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, long after Barcelona’s squad agreed to give up 70% of its salaries, long after Juventus players delayed their payment for months, players in England had still not agreed to defer or forfeit their salaries.
As of Thursday, their union — the Professional Footballers’ Association — was still locked in negotiations with the Premier League, the Football League and the Football Association, trying to strike a deal. The Premier League had advised its clubs that it wanted them to act in unison; it did not want anyone moving unilaterally.
At the same time, just as in the United States and other countries, hundreds of thousands of people in the rest of the British economy were filing for unemployment benefits, just the first wave of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus and the shuttering of towns and cities across the world.
At least four Premier League clubs, meanwhile, have moved to place many of their nonplaying staff on furlough: Norwich City, Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur. Others will follow, perhaps including some of the richest in the game, teams that are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in this summer’s transfer market now taking advantage of government support programs to pay their employees.
It is not yet a month since the Premier League was open for business as normal, not yet a month since these teams, backed by billionaires, played a game. English soccer’s broadcasters have not yet — as two networks have in France — refused to pay the latest portion of their rights agreements. Those acting on behalf of the players are surprised, it has been suggested, that the richest league in the world should plead poverty quite so quickly.
From the outside, it is a faintly obscene situation. Soccer, of course, makes a convenient punching bag at times like this, a portrait in the attic for a society unwilling to confront its inequalities. Politicians, never slow to issue moral judgment on footballers, have raged at how out of touch they are, how spoiled, how greedy, how abominably obsessed by money.
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But the root of the problem is not the surfeit of money; that is merely a function of the real issue, which is the dearth of trust. The players do not trust that the clubs are not trying to make them shoulder the burden. The clubs do not trust that the players’ agents — and by extension the players — will act honorably, in the common good.
And, just as important, the clubs do not trust one another: Hence the Premier League’s edict that, whatever action is taken, it should be across the board. Even in normal times, these institutions eye one another with suspicion. They believe that their rivals will, in some way, attempt to use any situation to gain a competitive edge. They are not well-suited to collective action.
That lack of trust permeates the game. FIFA, as my colleague Tariq Panja reported this week, has plans to use some of its vast cash reserves as an emergency fund for clubs to dip into in their hour of need. Privately, though, officials worry that much of that money will simply vanish, lost as it percolates through national associations or is siphoned off by agents.
The same is true at UEFA. It does not entirely trust the leagues; the leagues do not trust each other; some of them do not trust their clubs. This is the ultimate consequence of the undiluted neoliberal thinking that has permeated soccer: the idea that all are out for themselves.
That belief is so ingrained in the sport — especially in England, where the Premier League has been built on the purest Thatcherism known to man — that it cannot easily be set aside, even now, even at a time like this. (The contrast with Germany, where clubs are held to be community assets, is stark. There, players have sacrificed wages and clubs’ money without giving the impression it is having to be clawed from their fingers.)
The immediate consequence of that, of course, is that soccer has an image problem. It will be remembered that the national game, in England, did not seem especially willing to do its part to help out the country in its hour of need. There have been gestures, of course, welcome ones, as I noted last week; individual clubs and players have done what they can to use their platforms for good. But from the outside, it looks a lot like as soon as money came into it, that changed.
There is, though, a longer-term issue. No matter when the pandemic abates, no matter when life returns to something approaching normal, no matter when soccer comes back and no matter which season it is, there will be an economic cost, just as there will be in every other industry.
Few clubs, even elite ones, are enormously profitable. (It has been striking how fragile such a lucrative ecosystem can be.) The loss of match-day revenue — much less having to pay back a portion of television income — will be enough to tip quite a few of them into the red. A few steps down from the game’s aristocrats, the effects will be much more severe.
That means a contraction of the market: not just for transfer fees, but for player salaries and agents’ commissions, too. Clubs will be able to spend less, and will be inclined to sell more, driving down prices. Players will not command the sorts of salaries they might have done. At some clubs, it is possible that players will need to take pay cuts, just to help the team absorb the blow.
But this is a world, remember, where the players do not trust the clubs, the clubs do not trust the players, and the clubs do not trust one another, where everyone believes everyone else is out for himself, and so they must be, too. Players will be unwilling to suffer if they feel the clubs are passing the buck onto them. Clubs will be tempted to pay beyond their means in order to keep up with their rivals. For soccer, there is a second crisis, waiting just behind this one.
The thought has occurred, in recent days, that perhaps March 2020 marked the end of soccer’s golden era, the 25-year period when it was the biggest show on earth, a cultural phenomenon of unparalleled scale, an apparently bottomless pit of money and glamour. There was no trust, no unity, no collective spirit in times of plenty. We may be about to find out what happens in times of want.
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