INDUSTRIAL action in British football is relatively uncommon, but there could be something stirring on the horizon if recent mumblings are accurate. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, for one, has suggested players could consider going on strike over the issue of their personal welfare, while Chelsea’s boss, Thomas Tuchel and Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp are unhappy about the scheduling of matches during the pandemic.
Foreign coaches have always been critical of fixture planning and the potential for congestion, but with health issues coming into the equation there is certainly more chance of some sort of protest from players, many of whom have not been vaccinated until recent weeks.
Public reaction will be mixed towards the plight of footballers earning vast sums of money, but in truth, football should have been suspended once the pandemic started to affect squads. At the very least, it should have introduced emergency competitions to cut down on travelling and more recovery time between games – a simple, regionalisation, such as those used during the second world war would have been an ideal solution to keep the industry running at a lower speed. Suspension of some competitions, such as the Football League Cup would also have helped.
Strike action has taken place before; it almost happened in 1961 over the abolition of the maximum wage and in more recent times, Spain, Italy and Argentina have all experienced disruption.
The most likely outcome will be limited, if any, change. On one hand, the size of the top clubs’ squads gives them little cause for complaint, Manchester City, for example, have over 30 players out on loan and the English “top six” clubs have around 100 players on loan deals. But if one club is more impacted by the pandemic than others, then it changes the competitive landscape, and not necessarily by levelling things out.
We have long realised players now control a large part of the game, either by themselves or in union with their agents. Managers are easily disposed of if the dressing room “has been lost” when it is the players that have, invariably, got themselves lost in order to force change. With the PFA now involved, it is surely a matter of time before an ultimatum is tabled. If it happens, we could see the start of a new era in club-player relationships. The easy way to diffuse the situation would be to call a suspension of top-class football for a limited period and in that time, come up with some sensible and pragmatic modifications of the programme.
How will the public react? It will probably be mixed, but it does, in a way, raise questions about the forthcoming World Cup in 2022. We’ve seen how players have carried on with their Black Lives Matter demonstration by taking the knee before kick-off. The game has made it clear it will not tolerate racism, yet nobody is applying that same sentiment to Qatar and the World Cup. If feelings are running high, then surely England, for example, should NOT be going to Qatar in protest about a suspect regime and an inappropriate venue for the global game.
Of course, it will not happen, because football can shelve its moral code when it is inconvenient, as we have seen in the case of Newcastle United’s new owners. But we should also realise we’re all part of the same hypocrisy – Saudi Arabia is an ally of Britain and in late summer 2020, sold some £ 2 billion worth of weapons to the middle eastern state. Between 2010 and 2019, 40% of British arms sales were to Saudi Arabia. It’s somewhat difficult for the British government to become too obstructive over a football takeover in those circumstances.
The year 2022 may see more controversial takeovers and investments as football attempts to fill the gaps caused by the pandemic, which will surely deliver new types of providers – there will surely be another attempt by tech-driven entrepreneurs selling their latest snake oil – and less conventional methods of financing. At the same time, supporters will have to balance the burning desire for success at all costs with their moral values. For the good of football, all stakeholders have to do what’s right rather than what’s allowed.