So football came back. It seems bizarre now how much handwringing there was about its return given, in the main, how safely and sensibly procedures were adopted. Having no fans is far from ideal, but it turns out that when the game is engaging enough – as all the European fixtures were – the empty stadium is quickly forgotten. 

There’s a paradox here, of course. Many of the complaints about the return of football were rooted in the idea that the games were being played merely for financial reasons – to which the only answer was, well, yes. Since the advent of professionalism in the 1880s, clubs have been businesses. They have staff and overheads to pay. Of course money was a major factor in the return of the top divisions, just as it was the major factor in the decision of the lower leagues not to continue: for one group it made economic sense to press on, once it was safe to do so, for the other the cost of playing was greater than the returns in TV revenues.

And yet the return of football, even if the underlying reason was commercial, has reaffirmed the importance of the game itself. There has been a strange purity to the action, without the influence of crowds. There have been no cutaways to the Kop singing en masse, or celebrities in the stands at Paris Saint-Germain, or the snarling fury of a group of middle-aged men driven beyond breaking point because a throw-in has gone against them.

It’s easy in football to be distracted, to get hung up on image or marketing, on trying to expand market share. Barcelona and Juventus these days seem to have lost any grip on the centrality of football to what they do. Decisions seem to be made for cosmetic reasons, to sell the lifestyle the brand represents. It may even be that commercially that makes sense, at least in the short and perhaps the medium term.

But ultimately football clubs stand or fall on their football. And it would be nice to think that the game as it has been played in the summer of 2020, the reminder of just how glorious a crisp pass, or an acrobatic save, or a well-time block, even a goal, can be would serve as a reminder of that. If fans remain prohibited from stadiums, or allowed to attend only in reduced numbers, if advertising and commercial revenue drops, it would be nice to think the game football would retake its central position in the industry of football.

Of course it probably won’t, but it would be nice to think that.

September 2020