16 Apr 2020

WHAT FOOTBALL SHOULD BE DOING - RICHARD BEVAN

The entire world is now feeling the effects of COVID-19 and there is undoubtedly much more to come. Football is the world’s game – it is the sport that most unites everyone despite their individual circumstances. Our game unifies regardless of nationality, race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or political affiliation. Consequently football has a unique responsibility to the world in crisis and we need to step up. I see two emerging priorities – planning for what football should look like in the medium to long term and what football can do right now to help and serve our communities in the midst of a crisis.

Despite the unimaginable impact of this world slow down and isolation, there is an undeniable opportunity given to all of us to engage in a slower, more considered, more nuanced process of deciding what we want from our lives, our businesses and our sports. In particular, this is an unprecedented opportunity for football to really listen and to determine what our future will look like in whatever “new normal” emerges from this crisis. Indeed, we have an opportunity to shape the new normal.

Of course we need to look through April and May and what happens to our leagues and competitions. What are currently extraordinary circumstances are, in fact, the basis of the future we’re all facing and this means we also need medium to long term leadership, strategic thinking and solid plans. One thing prevalent throughout sport is the knowledge and ability to work as a team – we need to take that experience into a wider, more inclusive field – the wider football family. Let’s think about how we want football to look without that old trap of “this is how it’s always been done.” The script has been ripped up – let’s write a new one.

But what about right now? Many of the individual football stakeholders, from clubs, players, managers, leagues and associations have stepped up in various ways, including the LMA as we serve our members, but there is more than can be done and in a more coordinated fashion across our sport. For that to happen, we need more concerted, joined-up leadership from the top. The LMA and our members are already focused on our immediate sphere of influence. Football managers, from national team managers down to the lower tiers of each country's professional leagues, are the voice and leaders of their clubs and teams. Every day we hear of new ways our members are supporting their local communities and in so doing they are demonstrating calm, resolve, decisiveness and leadership because that is what they do for a living. 

The fans and supporters are the lifeblood of our game and we need to look after them. Not just as fans either, but as people enduring the worst global humanitarian crisis modern history. How can we, as a sport, serve them? This is a time for empathy. This is a time to look outwards with a view to helping. People are stressed and stress undermines good mental health. Within football, we are learning much about stress, so let’s use that knowledge to help improve everyone’s mental health. The LMA, partnered by Castrol, are currently developing a new podcast series on personal wellbeing and resilient topics, including pressure, stress and anxiety, isolation and loneliness, taking control and positive action, difficult times and change, addiction, rest and recovery. 

Football needs to focus on where it can help at all levels of the game and society – create better communities by providing better facilities for those communities to connect. That doesn’t need to mean physical structures; right now digital structures are more important. Football provides an incredible and unique platform. Our online and social media reach is unparalleled in the world – nothing comes close, so lets make the best use of it. If we coordinated our resources and voice, imagine what we could achieve as a game? We have access to the best coaching resources, community forums, leadership and psychological resources, and stories. Let’s give these to the fans while they’re at home. Let’s encourage then to be active, learn new skills, learn the history of the game, learn coping techniques; not just how to play football better, but how to relax and how to communicate. Let’s connect them.

And what are most of the football family missing most right now? Live football, and, whilst that’s not a need anyone can fulfil, we have already seen fantastic examples of broadcasters in the UK opening up access to view some truly memorable football footage and memories from their archives.

A crisis of this magnitude is a massive test for us all;  coping with the new pressures and challenges, whilst making sure our primary focus is, as ever, health and wellbeing. 

Our most basic need as humans is connection. Football connects us and it can unite us, and I believe it is our responsibility to play our part.