It’s been a month since sports activities were suspended worldwide because of the coronavirus.
The disruption has cast a shadow over all stakeholders involved in the sports business in terms of marketing and advertising. Sponsors are losing huge amounts of money because of the suspension of sports events, as are sports federations, clubs and organisations which are unable to pay the salaries of their players and employees because they cannot provide their own product to their sponsors due to the suspension.
Football, the world’s most popular and most lucrative sport, has been the most affected. However, FIFA President Gianni Infantino has, since the breakout of the pandemic, stressed that no football match was worth a life and that health remains the top priority. He added that football needs to take its own responsibility to ensure the sport “survives and moves forward”.
Earlier this week, Infantino outlined his three immediate priorities for FIFA to support football during and beyond the coronavirus in a video message specifically addressed to the 211 FIFA member associations and shared with members of the FIFA Council. He reiterated, in order of priority, that health comes first, that FIFA is ready to pro-actively help football through these exceptional circumstances, and that an ongoing consultation process is taking place to consider the future evolution of the sport.
“Our first priority, our principle, the one we will use for our competitions and encourage everyone to follow, is that health comes first,” the FIFA president said. “I cannot stress this enough. No match, no competition, no league is worth risking a single human life. Everyone in the world should have this very clear in their mind. It would be more than irresponsible to force competitions to resume if things are not 100 per cent safe. If we have to wait a little longer we must do so. It’s better to wait a little bit longer than to take any risks.”
Infantino singled out the member associations’ pro-active involvement in using football to pass important health messaging and sharing in their respective communities at this difficult time. “This is what football and teamwork is all about,” he said, “and we have to continue like this”.
“(For) the emergency relief fund… thanks to the work that we have been doing together in FIFA during the past four years, we are today in a very strong financial situation,” Infantino continued. “FIFA enjoys a good reputation on the financial markets… This has helped us consolidate a solid foundation with large reserves. But our reserves are not FIFA’s money. It is football’s money. So when football is in need, we must think what we can do to help… It is our responsibility and our duty.”
He said a consultation process is already underway to assess the financial impact across football in order to prepare the right response based around a fund with an independent governance structure. “You have to know that we will be there and we will find solutions together,” he said. “You will never be alone (and) the world will know where the money goes and, equally important, why the money goes there.”
But in order to alleviate immediate financial problems, Infantino stated that, subject to relevant committee approval, the second part of member association operational costs from the FIFA Forward Programme due later this year be paid in advance. Infantino added that, given the exceptional circumstances, he has requested that the requirement for the fulfilment of the additional criteria be waived for both 2019 and 2020 in order for the full amount to be paid to all member associations.
“If football manages to have a discussion where everyone contributes positively, and keeps in mind the global interest over the individual one, I am convinced our future can be better than our past, and we will be better prepared for the times ahead.”
Infantino thanked the Bureau of the Council members and the presidents of all confederations for the unity and solidarity shown at this time, and that such an approach will help football prosper beyond the coronavirus. With an eye to the future, he added that the right balance needs to be found to protect both national teams and club football in relation to the international match calendar, that flexibility and common sense must prevail in relation to players’ contracts and transfer windows from a legal perspective, and that the necessary analyses will be conducted to help member associations via the emergency relief fund.
Although traditional consultation processes have been halted due to travel restrictions imposed in relation to the coronavirus, Infantino requested member associations “to work with the technology available to engage more, to talk about the common challenges that lie ahead, and to think about the future”.
“I am convinced football will play a key role to bring people back together when it’s safe to play again and be with our friends and families in large groups,” he concluded. “Let’s prepare for that moment… FIFA is with you in these difficult times, and together, we will win!”
On a continental level, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) decided to continue suspending its football activities in light of growing concerns and evolving nature of the coronavirus amidst the lockdown in most countries. On Sunday, the CAF Emergency Committee decided to postpone the following matches until further notice: The Total CAF Champions League and Total CAF Confederation Cup semi-final matches. Both legs were scheduled for 1-3 May and 8-10 May. This means that Egypt’s three teams who made it to the semi-finals in both tournaments, Ahly, Zamalek and Pyramids, will have to wait for a new date to be announced by CAF.
CAF also decided to postpone the FIFA U-17 women’s World Cup qualifiers which were initially scheduled for 1-3 May and 15-17 May. Again, a new date is to be announced.
Meanwhile, according to a CAF statement, the African football body is monitoring the situation closely and working with the relevant authorities such as the World Wealth Health Organisation (WHO) on the impact of the virus on the continent.
Gezira Club premises
So, while sports activities are at a halt, some celebrity football players worldwide are playing their part in their social responsibility to their societies and communities by donating money to the National Health Services. These include Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and recently the former Ivorian international Didier Drogba who reports say has made his private hospital available for use as a government coronavirus facility. The news was also posted on Fans de Didier Drogba Facebook page. The hospital, located in the city of Abidjan, is named after Ivory Coast footballer Laurent Pokou who died in 2016.
Both Drogba and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o had criticised two French scientists for suggesting that untested Covid-19 vaccine trials must start in Africa, to which the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the scientists’ views were “appalling” and stressed that Africa will not be used as a vaccine testing ground.
Some of the world’s most famous footballers have also shown their contribution to the ongoing crisis by agreeing to have their salaries cut in order to enable their clubs to pay their employees instead of sacking them. Messi has been at the forefront of his Barcelona teammates by taking a 70 per cent pay cut in their salaries.
In Egypt, football salaries cannot be compared to those in Europe. However, they are still considered huge figures to the Egyptian public. So far, local players and employees in Egyptian clubs have not had pay reductions. The Ministry of Youth and Sports and the government have not cut salaries of public servants. There have been some individual contributions from a few stars in the form of financial aid to less-privileged families.
Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi has taken the opportunity of the suspension to follow up on projects, including the maintenance of Cairo International Stadium and a new international cycling track at Cairo Stadium under construction. The track is set to host the World Cycling Championship later this year.
Sobhi also announced the allocation of LE3.3 million in support of small clubs and sports federations to enable them to fulfil their financial obligations to their employees and players. Part of the money also goes to winners of African and international competitions in handball, wrestling and taekwondo, as well as the equestrian federation.
The ministry has also agreed to financially support the Egyptian Football Association as part of a plan in which the wealthier clubs will support smaller clubs financially.
Gezira Club President Amr Gazarin has also offered the club’s headquarters at its new premises in 6 October as a quarantine venue if needed by the Ministry of Health. The club’s proposal was appreciated by the ministers of health and youth and sports.
And just as the rest of the world, Egyptian sports remains suspended until further notice. As sports clubs and gyms are shut down until 23 April and a night-time curfew still in effect, men and women have no place to train in order to maintain their physical fitness. Many train at home, others on the streets and open areas, while those who have the luxury of living in compounds train in their gardens.
Egyptian swimmers based in the US were brought home on an emergency flight bringing back Egyptians stuck abroad. Sobhi and the president of the swimming federation Yasser Idris helped in the logistics.
Swimmers Farida Osman and Ahmed Akram, as well as Stoke City female footballer Sara Essam thanked the Egyptian government for bringing them back home and agreed that while they are in quarantine in the Red Sea resort of Marsa Alam, they would train to stay fit. They have taken to social media with videos of themselves posted to their families, friends and fans to show them that they were safe.
Sobhi also held a video conference with the athletes to check on their health and their time in quarantine. Idris contacts his swimmers daily while EFA board member Sahar Abdel-Haq has encouraged footballer Essam to stay fit to be ready to join the Egyptian national team as soon as play resumes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly