The immeasurable importance of football in a pandemic – The Question Marker
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Dept. of Sociology

The immeasurable importance of football in a pandemic

“Football inspires us to extend ourselves beyond our cognitive limitations, and enables us to foster purposeful connections that enhance our sense of pride, identity, and sociability.”

An elated Wilfred Zaha celebrates after a crucial Crystal Palace win in May 2019.

There are many times when football takes itself too seriously. Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, said as much when he queried the media’s propensity to ask football people about sociocultural and political issues unrelated to the sport. But its inflated sense of self aside, football is also a medium to channel hope, and a constant source of affirmation for billions of people around the world. So yes, while it’s indisputable that the sport often takes itself too seriously, football’s imminent return amid a global pandemic isn’t one of those instances when the sport lends itself to nonchalant hubris. 

Sometimes, it’s easy to think of the world of football and only see its pantheon of overpaid narcissists. But the world of football is bigger than what plays out on the pitch, the flood lights, or the gut-bolstering reverberations of pre-game thematic music. The world of football is a multi-purpose industry that puts food on the table for the viewing center owner in Lagos, the freelance football writer in Buenos Aires, and the second-hand merchandise vendor in Kuala Lumpur. To treat the prospect of football leagues resuming as a moral contest between human life and corporate greed is disingenuous, because in reality, it is more of a choice between fear and survival. 

Regarded as the world’s biggest league, with an average global audience of 4.7 billion across 212 territories, the Premier League’s decision to exclude its association with England from its official name is indicative of how football is both burdened and elevated by how well it transcends the constraints of geography. There are currently 65,000 footballers in the world according to the international footballers union FIFPro; around 4,000 of those players ply their trade in England and only 514 are insulated by the riches of the Premier League. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the United Kingdom had an unemployment rate of four percent, its highest in 45 years, with the figure expected to rise post-Covid. Some of those jobless people will be footballers, and even they won’t be as much as the number of non-playing staff and officials that would be affected the moment football clubs go bust.

Manchester City’s David Silva points three fingers to the sky during a premier league match. Photo Credit: Manchester City

But, while ensuring the health and safety of the populace is one of the cardinal responsibilities of government, so too is ensuring a socioeconomic climate that sustains the mental and emotional well-being of its people.

The Premier League is one of the reasons football has been touted as the world’s 17th biggest economy. However, if the season is unable to be completed, the league is at risk of losing an estimated sum of $1.4 billion. Should the Premier League be able to finish though, it stands to lose only $210 million, which represents a 85 percent drop in comparison to the worst case scenario. 

In Spain the situation is not so different, with Javier Tebas, the President of La Liga, stating that the league stands to lose over $1 billion if it’s unable to end the season. That figure drops to $325 million if games have to be played behind closed doors, and $162 million if the league is able to convince the Spanish government to allow fans in the stadium upon its return. Italy’s Serie A, which was the first mainstream European league to be suspended, is at risk of losing $865 million.

And it’s reasonable to play with empty stands. For all the talk about football being a spectator sport, its biggest revenue streams are broadcast rights, sponsorship, and licensing. Gate takings are at the lower rung of the revenue pyramid. 

Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah readies to strike a ball. Photo Credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Think beyond the gravity of financial loss, because it’s nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands that have died, instead, consider the human and social consequences of keeping football on an indefinite lockdown. The mass onslaught of anxiety in the wake of retrenchment, the subsequent spread of uncertainty and despair and, before long, you get a nation too broken to rise from the crippling economic effects of an unforeseen health disaster. Football’s return, even if the games may need to be played behind closed doors to protect everyone involved, is a chance to kill two birds with one stone. The first bird is economic sustainability, and the second is social reintegration. 

The five biggest economies in Europe are Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain in that order. These five countries happen to also have the biggest football leagues in the world. In Germany, Europe’s leading economy, its top-tier division, the Bundesliga, has over 37,567 people in its employ, making it one of the largest private employers in the country. Last year the Bundesliga broke the $4 billion mark in revenue, with over $1 billion going to the government in taxes. Besides supporting over 100,000 jobs and paying over $4 billion in taxes, the Premier League also contributes $9.3 billion to the GDP of the UK. For any country serious about saving itself from recession, it’s vital that league football is allowed to resume. 

These numbers add credence to the argument that one of the reasons Africa remains largely impoverished is due to the continent’s inability to tap into the economic potentials of its vibrant football culture. European governments understand that the money football makes doesn’t solely reside within football, and doesn’t only come from within football. It’s in this way that football operates as both catalyst and conductor, ensuring economic viability and productivity across the board. When you add the fact that football is a healthy source of entertainment that almost every social group can engage with, then its importance to society attains a uniquely grand pedestal. 

Manchester United’s Odion Ighalo celebrates a goal with teammates. Photo Credit: BBC

The lack of football over the past few weeks has had a negative and disruptive impact on the livelihood and mental health of most people. Football inspires us to extend ourselves beyond our cognitive limitations, and enables us to foster purposeful connections that enhance our sense of pride, identity, and sociability. Football fills our life with meaning, doubles as a healthy escape, and is as much a cultural pursuit as it is an intimate celebration of life. Bill Shankly may have overestimated the significance of football when he said it was more serious than life and death, but sometimes, it really does feel like a phenomenon that exists in a realm untainted by the incongruity of mortal existence. 

With a vaccine for COVID-19 not expected to be developed anytime soon, football can’t afford to stand still in an uncertain loop of inactivity. Football can help governments facilitate a communal spirit of collective togetherness after months of living in isolation and seclusion. It would be nothing short of a dereliction of duty if governments can’t find a safe way to get football back in business as soon as possible. ✚

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