As COVID-19 continues to lockdown the globe, football is no exception to the changes in reality and society that this has brought. In the last two months almost all professional leagues in world football have been postponed or cancelled. Similar moves have also been announced for a slew of international tournaments, with both EURO 2020 and Copa America 2020 provisionally moved to summer 2021.
The first knock-on effect of these decisions to be considered by clubs, governing bodies and players is of course financial. However, one aspect which will surely be on the minds of those directly in involved in the game is that of the lost time this pandemic will cause, and what football clubs, owners, sponsors, journalists, players and fans could ultimately miss out on as a result.
The phrase ‘a year is a long time in football’ is something of a cliche managers, pundits and players say when discussing issues such a long-term injury or a transfer saga. This phrase takes on a lot more meaning when put in the context of a footballer’s career.
According to the PFA – which represents professional footballers in England – their members have an average career of eight years in the professional game. While obvious outliers like Ryan Giggs and James Milner might laugh at this projection, the point remains that players entering the professional game have around eight years to make their mark.
For the ambitious players, this means eight years to make it to the top flight, win a trophy, represent their country, and then perhaps even lift a trophy on international duty. If they are lucky – and very talented – those eight years might give them a chance of three World Cups, with a couple of continental tournaments in between each one.
Put that into an ‘everyday’ context: imagine a teacher with only eight years to make it to headteacher; a hairdresser with only eight years to open their own salon; or a chef with only eight years to gain his/her first Michelin Star. Now imagine that they were told that they had one year less to do that in. Footballers have many benefits over the general public, but one advantage they do not possess tends to be time.
So, while perhaps an obvious statement to make, those players taking to the field for Copa America and EURO 2020 next summer will all be one year older. For some, their chance of glory may be lost as a result.
Think, for example, of the potential Belgium team showing up at the rescheduled EUROs; by next summer Toby Alderweireld (31-years-old), Thomas Vermalen (34y/o), Jan Vertonghen (32y/o), Vincent Kompany (33y/o), Axel Witsel (31y/o), Marouane Fellaini (32y/o), Kevin De Bruyne (28y/o), Eden Hazard (29y/o) and Dries Mertens (32y/o) will all be in their thirties.
While many teams have seen international success with experienced squads, a nation like Belgium see this as their last opportunity to fulfil the expectation put on this particular group of players. As former unlucky ‘golden generations’ like The Netherlands in the 1970s and England in the early 2000s know only too well, there is only a small period in which supposed destiny can be achieved.
On an individual basis, meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo (35y/o) and Lionel Messi (32y/o) will both be a step closer to their retirement, and one year further from their previous peaks. Given the history of both men carrying their nations through tournaments, their compatriots may be especially hopeful that both show up to next year’s respective tournaments fit and in-form.
For some, the postponements may even mean a change in career plan. England Women’s midfielder, Jill Scott (33y/o), recently joked about postponing her retirement following the Women’s EURO 2021 tournament being moved back to 2022. She admitted to the BBC that the postponement would be “a little bit worrying for older players”. The men’s game may see similar issues, with both Toni Kroos and Manuel Neuer previously hinting at international retirement after the original EUROs.
On the reverse of this argument, there are those who may just welcome the postponement (though obviously not the means by which it came). From an English perspective, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford need not rush back from injury, while Lyon’s Memphis Depay will also now be in pole position to start for the Dutch. His hopes previously seemed ruined following a long-term knee injury suffered in December.
Younger players too will have revived hope of getting on their countries’ 23-man squad list. They now have an extra year to develop, prove themselves to their club managers and then hopefully catch the eye of the national set-up. The likes of England’s Phil Foden (19y/o), Brazil’s Vinicius Junior (19y/o) and Spain’s Ansu Fati (17y/o) could be some of the players who end up making their tournament debuts earlier than expected.
Between them, the three teenagers have made just 18 starts in league football this season. However, with David Silva leaving a Phil Foden-sized-void in Manchester City’s team, Vinicius returning to full fitness and Fati gaining another year under Quique Setien and Messi’s guidance, all three could put themselves in a great position to gain a call-up in 2021.
Other young players, however, will not be so lucky. In its most recent response to the COVID-19 situation, UEFA took the decision to cancel the European Under-17 Championship and the Women’s European Under-19 Championship, while several other men’s and women’s youth tournaments scheduled for this summer have been indefinitely postponed.
A potential issue with postponing these tournaments, whether until the end of this year, or until next summer, is the age restrictions players must meet. If the usual age limits are kept, then by the time the tournaments take place, players who led their teams to the tournament may be too old to be eligible for selection.
The Olympic Games appears to have foreseen this issue, as they announced that the age restriction on footballers at next year’s rescheduled Games will be Under-24, rather than the usual Under-23 limit. This will give a reprieve for the likes of Brazil’s Luiz Felipe (23y/o) and Lucas Paqueta (22y/o).
Ronaldo Nazario once famously said he would choose the World Cup over sex, reasoning that: “It (sex) is not that good, but the World Cup is every four years and sex is a lot more regular than that.” Now, Ronaldo played at four World Cups, and judging by Alexandre Pato’s infamous AC Milan dressing room welcome by ‘El Fenomeno’, he did okay on the other metric as well. Yet, this quote still signifies just how important players view competing at, let alone winning, international tournaments.
For now, the thought of seeing some of the payers mentioned at the EUROs or Copa next year at least gives football fans around the world something to look forward to when this current crisis ends. Until then, fans can only hope that when summer 2021 comes they will still be able to see some of the world’s best in their twilight years, and maybe even a couple of new and unexpected names too.