Soccer the Sport Must Stop. Soccer the Business Probably Can’t.

Others have had their training facilities fully disinfected, banned travel to and from high-risk areas, encouraged people to work from home whenever possible. At another Premier League club, staff members have been advised to wash their hands upon entering and leaving every single room. Medical departments have been slowly ramping up hygiene measures as the crisis deepens.

But while they were doing what little they could, the clubs were also waiting for leadership. It was not for individual clubs to make broad decisions that could affect whole competitions, entire seasons. They required someone above them to take the reins. And until this week, it simply had not happened.

Soccer’s response to coronavirus has proved two things. One is quite how fractured the game’s structure has become, how unable it is to speak with one voice, even on an issue as pressing as its role in mitigating a public health emergency. Each authority has been unable to look beyond its own responsibility, to imagine itself as part of a greater whole.

That has always been the case, of course; it is what lies at the heart of the ongoing conversations about the global calendar, the endless struggle to fold the ambitions and the greed of Europe’s aristocratic clubs into some broader structure.

But it has been laid bare in the last few weeks just how rife the game is with self-interest, how little care there is for the sport as a whole, and how vulnerable that makes everything.

The crisis has revealed how reluctant organizing bodies are to inconvenience themselves and how navel-gazing club officials can be, wondering whether their players will be overloaded by makeup games when there is a possibility the season itself might have to be canceled.

The second is not unrelated. Nobody doubts that soccer — as a sport — is by its very nature a nonessential activity. It does not matter, not like guaranteeing that children have access to education or that an economy can continue functioning or that people have enough to eat. It is in the front rank of things that should be considered optional, easily sacrificed for the greater good.

But that is not how soccer the business sees it. Action would certainly have been taken sooner if there were not quite so much money riding on the sport. Every available solution would seem much more feasible if there were not quite so many financial — and legal — factors to be considered.

If broadcasters did not view soccer less as a game but more as content that has cost millions of dollars to acquire (each Premier League game broadcast in Britain cost its host domestic network $16 million), then perhaps the season could be canceled, or ended prematurely.

If UEFA did not have to factor in its sponsorship deals, shifting this summer’s European Championships back a year would be far simpler. If FIFA were not determined to muscle in on the riches available in the club game with its revamped, expanded Club World Cup in 2021, there would be more slack — and more good will — for what seems, at this point, the most obvious initial measure.

And if teams were not, at heart, businesses reliant on prize money, perhaps the consequences of annulling the season would not be quite so stark. Much of the focus, naturally, would be on which teams would win each national title — Liverpool, waiting three decades to be crowned champion, only to be denied when that is in its grasp — but the real complications would be lower down. Who would qualify for the Champions League, and its lucrative prize pot? Who would be promoted and relegated, and how could that be organized without legal challenge?

That is the problem that UEFA, and all of those bodies invited to dial in on Tuesday to try to draw up a road map out of this crisis, will try to untangle. Soccer, in the face of a pandemic that could cost hundreds of thousands of lives, clearly does not matter, not in any real sense. Postpone it, cancel it, whatever. There are more important things to think about. It is a sport, after all.

But it is not only a sport; it is also a business. And that business, worryingly, may not be able to afford to stop, may not be prepared to countenance the idea that it should, no matter how close the waters are lapping at its feet, no matter how great the flood.

Kylian Mbappé Should Know Better

To return to soccer: There was a strange note to Paris St.-Germain’s celebrations after beating Borussia Dortmund for (in theory) a place in the Champions League quarterfinals. Together with his teammates, a video emerged of Kylian Mbappé seeming to take the opportunity to mock Erling Haaland, the Dortmund striker, for his team’s failure to advance.

Quite what Haaland had done wrong is anybody’s guess. The Norwegian striker is, of course, not exactly shy and retiring, either on the field or off it. His performances this season, suggest it is fair to say he is unlikely to be troubled during his career by a lack of confidence in his ability.

But that is, ordinarily, the sort of thing his peers understand. Much of the time, they understand all too well where that sort of self-belief comes from, and how necessary it is. It seemed a little low for Mbappé and the rest of P.S.G.’s players to personalize their celebrations like that, as though they were taking as much pleasure in an opponent’s disappointment as their own success.

Still, such things usually end just one way. Soccer has a way of exacting karmic retribution somewhere along the way.


This column has noted previously its astonishment — from an ocean away — at the remarkable, and entirely avoidable, disconnect between U.S. Soccer and its standard-bearing women’s team, but even by those standards, the language of the legal filings submitted by the governing body this week as part of the ongoing equal pay dispute is quite astonishing.

That is in part, of course, because of how ridiculous the whole situation is. The U.S. women’s team is one of the most recognizable in the world, one of those gold-standard teams that has the universal admiration — if, perhaps, not always affection, as the World Cup proved last year — of the sport as a whole. It is also an unquestioned success story for the sport in the United States. Why in the name of all that is good would you be so happy to alienate them?

But what really stood out, this time, was the phrasing: the idea that the men’s game demands a higher level of power and pace — and therefore, by an osmosis that I do not fully understand, skill — than the women’s.

Just as I am not an epidemiologist, I am not an expert on gender inequality, but this strikes me as a fairly clear example of how patriarchy works: judging everything by standards and expectations set by, for and on behalf of men. What U.S. Soccer thinks it is achieving is anyone’s guess. It might believe it holds the power here — though I would argue it does not — but, if so, it seems determined to level the playing field, by utterly vacating the moral high ground.


I’m especially glad that Brandon Kim got in touch, bringing up a subject that is dear to my heart. “If I have a suggestion for you, it would be to start calling ‘soccer’ football,” he wrote. “Even as someone who grew up in the U.S., I never understood why Americans call football ‘soccer.’ Considering the majority of your readers are football fans, I think they would come to assume you are not talking about the N.F.L.”

This is normally an accusation you hear from the other side — English people getting frothingly angry at an unwelcome, intrusive Americanism — but it’s one, I confess, I don’t have much time for, unfortunately. “Soccer” is as British as it is American: We read World Soccer magazine, we watch Soccer Saturday on TV, we play Pro Evolution Soccer on our consoles. (Well, we did until we had kids.)

Having done a bit of research in that area, I’d say that until the 1980s, “soccer” and “football” were basically interchangeable in Britain. It changed at some point after that, and not saying “soccer” became some sort of badge of identity, though I couldn’t really tell you what, precisely, it is meant to signify. So as far as I can see, if it saves on potential confusion for even one reader, soccer is fine by me.

Doug Williams, meanwhile, expresses (I think) admiration for a very modern phenomenon: the “low ticket prices, standing sections and being able to smoke and drink in the stadium, along with cheap airfares” attracting English fans to German fixtures. Dortmund, he points out, has always been especially popular. “They can do all this and still spend less than a Premier League outing.” It is true, and it is also pretty damning for English soccer/football.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for all the correspondence, as ever. If there’s anything urgent, I’m on Twitter. If it can wait, drop me a line at [email protected] And you can tell everyone you know about how nice it is to get an email every Friday here.

Have a great weekend.

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