The Warm-Up takes a break from its usual service to address the crisis in English football posed by the coronavirus outbreak.
The Warm-Up needs to be honest with you all for a moment. It didn’t watch the football last night. Any of it. This is a football column and, admittedly, this could be a problem. But sometimes it’s hard to focus on sport, even one as glorious as football.
When you are literally having WhatsApp conversations with ageing relatives designed to try and improve their chances of avoiding a premature death; when the Prime Minister is telling the nation that, “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”; when you are keeping a mental note of how many packs of pasta you have left in your cupboard because the local supermarkets have totally sold out; when Iran is alleged to be digging mass graves to house coronavirus victims; the fact that Odion Ighalo has just scored for Manchester United becomes background noise.
In moments like this – at times which are truly unprecedented in our lifetimes – sport has to take a back seat. And so it did, mostly, on a day of carnage, when major sporting events were being cancelled seemingly every five minutes. Stories which would have once have been the biggest sporting news that month were reduced to a mere checklist as huge event after huge event became the latest victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Six weeks of ATP tennis, gone. The season-opening F1 race, on the brink. Ligue 1, La Liga, MLS and the Eredivisie, all suspended. All five of America's major sports leagues, suspended. Both of Tuesday night’s Champions League matches, between Real Madrid and Manchester City and Juventus and Lyon, unable to take place with two teams in quarantine. Euro 2020, poised to become Euro 2021.
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And yet there was one prominent exception, the Premier League, which announced late into Thursday night that it was not going to follow the example set by so many other sporting bodies. In that it took its cue from England’s Prime Minister, who said his government was not going to follow the example set by so many other countries and impose the kind of mass shutdown that China and Italy have deployed, and Ireland and France are adopting to varying degrees too.
This was even despite Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers revealing earlier in the day that three of his players were self-isolating after showing possible symptoms of COVID-19. And after reports emerged that Manchester City defender Benjamin Mendy was self-isolating too, after a member of his family was admitted to hospital. It couldn't continue, could it? Apparently it could.
And then came the real punch to the gut. The breaking news alert that really hit hard. Forty-five minutes after the Premier League released a statement saying the show would go on, Arsenal released one of their own to announce the shocking news that manager Mikel Arteta had tested positive for coronavirus.
It brought an uncharacteristically swift response from a body which has already prevaricated far too long over this issue. "In light of Arsenal’s announcement tonight confirming that their first team coach Mikel Arteta has tested positive for COVID-19, the Premier League will convene an emergency club meeting tomorrow morning regarding future fixtures,” it read. And it is expected now that top-flight domestic football will be put on hiatus.
Rightly so. If a manager is positive for coronavirus and his entire playing staff have to be placed in quarantine, there is no way they can fulfil fixtures. It will only be a matter of time before more cases come to light, and the full reality of what the world is facing seems finally to be taking hold at the Premier League. The wonder is why it took Arteta’s diagnosis to finally make something happen. Why the Premier League had to be put into a position where it had no other choice to finally tackle this issue.
The Warm-Up is no scientist, and certainly not in any position to judge with any clarity whether the UK government’s rather more relaxed approach to the greatest public health crisis of modern times is advisable or not, but there cannot be any sensible argument for asking tens of thousands of people to congregate in one place, squeeze in alongside each other on public transport, share toilets and food outlets. And yet, at the time of writing, that is still the position of the Government, and the Premier League. Not even the precaution of instructing teams to play behind closed doors.
It is an utterly bemusing stance in a world where we all have to accept that we are experiencing a new normal. A world where you cast suspicious glances at anyone coughing. A world where you wrap your hand in your coat to open train doors. A world where ‘social distancing’ is a survival mechanism. A world fundamentally transformed. Unless you work at the Premier League.
Thankfully, now that stance may change. But it took a manager contracting COVID-19 to force the Premier League out of its slumber. Despite its intransigence, the Premier League was never immune to the coronavirus. Almost every other sporting body in the world had the foresight to see what the only acceptable response was.
The Warm-Up will return on Monday. Not exactly as normal. Nothing is any more. But it will return.