Source: istock 2020
It is without doubt one of the most challenging years for football since the sport began,’ says Theodore Theodoridis, the General Secretary of European football’s governing body UEFA. ‘The COVID-19 pandemic brought European football to a standstill. The outlook was uncertain, and the ramifications were difficult to predict.’
UEFA and its 55 member associations had to deal with an unprecedented situation. Facing the COVID pandemic required a huge amount of commitment, cooperation and compromise to complete this season’s domestic leagues, European club competitions and 2020/2021 season planning. 'The game’s absence left a big gap in people’s lives,' Theodoridis says. 'Whether training and playing at any level of the game, socialising and enjoying watching the sport – or making it part of your healthy and active lifestyle – the crisis period has been a stark reminder of how much sport and football means to us all. For many, it was also a challenge to adapt – how to replace the respite, health and pure enjoyment that so many of us find and share in football.'
Football's game plan for recovery
UEFA reacted quickly in early March, speaking with key stakeholders from the football and sports community – including the major associations representing professional clubs, leagues and players. The organisation also closely followed the advice and instructions of health experts, governments and public health authorities like the European Commission. Restarting meant following strict health and safety guidelines for players, officials and technical staff, as well as the referees, and the venue staff. ‘It required sacrifice, prioritisation, compromise and inventiveness,” Theodoridis says. ‘We’re all in this together. We will get through it together.’
The UEFA Euro 2020 championship – scheduled to take place in 12 cities across Europe to celebrate 60 years of EURO - was pushed back to 2021, and many leagues were able to resume in June. But Europe’s premier club competitions – the UEFA Champions League and Europa League had to be rearranged. It was eerie to play in empty stadiums, Theodoridis admits. 'Who does not want to hear the roar of a crowd when a goal is scored or listen to fans sing songs that resound famously around the world?' he asks. 'But it is better for millions to watch at home safely than to have stopped football altogether.'
Support for grassroots football and community actions
While there was a major focus on elite competitions, UEFA stresses that grassroots football is a vital part of its mission. Football swung behind activities to keep people fit and healthy – both physically and mentally. For example, UEFA supported the #BeActive hour on May 30, which was originally meant to be the day of the Champions League final.
There have also been many instances of players, fans, clubs and leagues helping those around them stay fit and engaged despite the circumstances. For example, players like England’s Michael Owen, France’s Patrice Evra, and Dutch star Rafael van der Vaart took part in online coaching clinics enabling kids to learn new skills, at a time when grassroots football remained inaccessible.
Larger football clubs are also working hard to ensure communities stay strong during the pandemic. Germany’s top clubs set up a €20 million solidarity fund for struggling smaller clubs. Manchester City let local health bodies use their premises, with 350 nurses training at the stadium itself. UEFA Champions League clubs and Women’s Champions League clubs launched initiatives to support fans and communities, such as raising funds to buy life-saving medical equipment, delivering food to vulnerable groups and providing multilingual, e-dictation lessons for children.
Sport, optimism and the future of football
Theodoridis says the crisis showed how much football means to those who care about it – and underlined for all football stakeholders the importance of promoting and protecting sports for the enjoyment and involvement of all. ‘UEFA’s President has repeatedly made this our core ethos: purpose over profit. That is the key.’ he says. ‘It was telling proof that football is part of the fabric of our society. And we felt strongly that by returning to play – albeit with caution – we can contribute to raising the morale of millions of people. The restart has clearly shown that we are going in the right direction and we will beat this virus.’