Arsenal’s first team have returned to training, participating in the first phase of Project Restart. Under these guidelines, training has to be done in small groups, with two meters of distance at all times. And so, the players emerged, with hairstyles showing that no one has broken lockdown for a trim, their own kit and water bottles. It was similar across the Premier League, with some notable exceptions: N’Golo Kanté was given compassionate leave over coronavirus fears, and Troy Deeney refused to report back for training, citing his five-month child, who has breathing difficulties. Deeney’s decision was vindicated when three members of Watford’s team and staff tested positive for coronavirus.
The return to training is the first step of the Premier League’s plan to start playing football again, with further steps to come in the following weeks. The big change will be contact training, when players are forced to play the game of football and come into close contact with one another. There isn’t yet a time-frame for the government to give the Premier League approval to move to contact training, and it’s not particularly far-fetched to think that the Premier League might be trying to map out their return in a similar pattern to the Bundesliga, and thus are perhaps waiting to see how the Bundesliga continues to proceed. There are, of course, significant differences: Germany’s handling of the pandemic has been far superior to the United Kingdom’s.
The return to contact training and then games is fraught with risk. While there is significant evidence that the virus is most commonly transmitted indoors, the close contact between individuals breathing heavily that a football match requires means that there will be risk. And while athletes are, overall, generally very healthy people, there are athletes who have pre-existing conditions, who have children, partners and other family members that live with them who are potentially at risk, and, as Dr. Eva Carneiro said last week, the risk to athletes themselves is not entirely known. Because of the intensity that athletes exercise at, greater strain can be placed on the body and key organs, such as the heart.
A majority of players do want to get back to playing, and it must be acknowledged that lockdown has been hard on footballers, who have suffered from a higher rate of depression during this period. Playing football must provide a degree of normalcy for them, and much as we all crave normalcy, so too do footballers. But in a similar vein, footballers must also face a return to work during a pandemic. Even if football tests two or three times a week, there is still going to be some risk—a higher level of risk than footballers usually face.
In that regard, football is similar to the rest of life. It is not often that footballers, who we often place on a pedestal, and the plebeians have much in common. But in this case there is a degree of commonality: we all have to navigate a higher degree of risk, be it simply going to the grocery store, or figuring out how to slowly return to some semblance of society. And much as most people regard the future with trepidation, that same allowance must be given to footballers, who are, at the end of the day, human beings.
If, then, Troy Deeney, or N’Golo Kanté, or any player feels uncomfortable with returning, it should not be held against them, in terms of their character, their capability and future as a footballer, or indeed their salary; after all, no footballer signed up to play during a pandemic, and in the case of Arsenal players, they have already agreed a pay cut that they did not have to. Not returning does not mean the player has a lesser mentality, or is lazy or selfish; it means that in an extraordinary time, they are scared. Rather than having to do with their capability as a footballer, it is about how they feel as someone who is, like the rest of us, trying to understand how to navigate the future.