Football will define its own destiny as it returns to a strange world

Football is not going to be the same again. That is about as obvious an observation you can make as we welcome the return of the English Premier League. But the peculiarity of it all will come from far more than the conspicuous — the echoes around an empty Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the audible hoarse voice of a remonstrating Pep Guardiola blasted from your TV — and will extend to the fabric of the game itself.

When sport was put on ice a few months ago, the popular refrain was that professional athletes had finally learned that they’re not that important after all. It all seemed rather silly to obsess over obscenely-paid ball kickers when confronted with a real-word global crisis. The decision to call it all off was, at least at first, a no-brainer.

In the days that followed elite footballers surely have never felt as redundant. There was no Tik-Tok dance in the world that could erase that feeling of irrelevance.

The last three or so weeks have changed that. Footballers are finally finding a voice, one that actually matters.

Galvanised by the Black Lives Matter protests, and perhaps spurned by their recent ineptitude, global superstars are finally speaking out on issues of importance en masse and using their platforms in a constructive manner.

We have never seen an outspoken wave of this magnitude before, certainly not in Europe’s top leagues. At club level it was easy to dismiss those first signs of solidarity as a cunning marketing ploy — even McDonald’s can post a support square on Instagram — but it is quickly evolving into something far more productive. Amid the countless collective decisions to take a knee in training, individual players, in particular, are now emboldened to speak out on issues that may have found them ostracised in the past.

Just this week Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford delivered an impassioned letter to MPs imploring them to listen to the pleas of vulnerable children across England and “find your humanity”. A few days earlier Raheem Sterling had kickstarted an extraordinarily uncomfortable conversation by demanding black managers be given the same opportunities as the beloved Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.  

This sense of activism is more in keeping with the historical ethos of football than the apathy we’ve become accustomed to in modern times. Yes, the pandemic has shown us we can live without Jesse Lingard’s increasingly sporadic goal celebrations but it does not discount the effect that football, as a sport, has on our society. If you have any doubt about that, look up any of the numerous examples of the melding of football and politics around the world, from sowing the seeds of the Egyptian revolution to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s preservation of power.  

It is the big wigs of football, league chairpeople and club officials, herded by governing body Fifa, that have stubbornly pushed this preposterous, white-washed idea that current affairs should be kept far away from the pitch. We often berate our friends in the United States for adopting a “shut up and dribble” attitude but really we’ve all turned a blind eye as the same mindset has taken hold in our favourite game.

As the world’s most watched competition, the English Premier League will play a huge part in defining football’s place in the modern world. The signs indicate it’s time to stop being a “Weekend Special” and instead play an active role in the lives of its devotees. 

The last dance

The beautiful paradox of football is that as much as it is inextricable from the world’s problems it is also the purest form of escapism. And there is certainly no shortage of subplots to get lost in when our favourite soapie returns this weekend.

The significant negation of home advantage and the ubiquitous rustiness sure to show up in the first days only heightens the drama. 

One spoiler we can give is that Liverpool will win the league — there’s nothing nature can produce to stop that from happening now. The bulk of the excitement will come those just below them, namely those fighting for the Champions League spots.

Atop the pile of intrigue is Manchester City — specifically because they don’t know whether qualifying for the Champions League will be enough to get them there. The club are still waiting for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to decide if it will suspend their ban from Europe’s premier tournament.

Should they not do so it will likely bring a definitive, unceremonious end to the glorious Guardiola era. The coach has long been said to be considering his options and in either case will struggle to attract the necessary top talent without the promise of continental exploits for two years.

We could be watching a real-time rendition of everyone’s favourite quarantine watch, The Last Dance, an ode to Michael Jordan et al’s final championship winning season with the Chicago Bulls. It’s too late to take a crack at the league title but it would not be in keeping with Guardiola’s fiery Catalan character to go out without a few more defiant swings.

Watching City over the past three years has been about as close an approximation to perfection as you could get on a pitch. As fluid as the football has been at face value there is something deeply mechanical in how it operates on the back-end; as if every detail was meticulously selected to optimise its accompanying elements. Which they very much were. 

The ultimate fuck you would be to win the Champions League this year. Should Real Madrid be overcome in the last 16, expect Guardiola to enter fine-tuning mode ahead of the newly announced quarterfinal mini-tournament in August.

Should the ban be upheld, it will mean fifth place will become an automatic qualification spot and sets up a fascinating battle royale between at least seven teams. Leicester City, 10 points above sixth, look to have escaped the scrap while Chelsea can cement their advantage if their young, injury-prone squad begins the restart with the same vigour that they did at the start of the season.

Everyone else’s fortunes are a lot harder to codify. Sheffield United, the defensive connoisseurs of the season, and the occasionally brilliant, if capricious, Wolves will continue in their assault on the status quo. Whether the abnormal structuring of the coming weeks will be a bolster or burden to their dreams is anyone’s guess but there’s no denying the size of the opportunity they have to grab a seat at the table.

Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal are vying to not be left behind in the league. The first two will meet on Friday in the pick of the weekend’s fixtures. José Mourinho will hardly need motivation to get one over his old side but will be well aware of the disastrous ramifications if he loses and falls out of the running.

Champions League qualification is important enough on an ordinary day; in these unusual times it will very likely be life or death for a club’s ambitions. 

No one quite knows just how hard a knock the pandemic will have on international football finances but we can be certain that it won’t be good. This uneasiness forced Liverpool to give up on Timo Werner, a player they had courted for some time and was a relative bargain at €60-million in a world where teenagers go for double that. Those who have admirably built up a self-sustaining model — such as the champions-elect and Spurs — will probably teeter along a glass bridge for the foreseeable future. Missing out on the valuable income of Europe is not an option.

Which all sets up tantalisingly high stakes for the final, condensed rounds. Just as football has had to find its role in our new world, so too must its teams figure out where they stand in its hierarchy.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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