Research suggests football can be played safely during Covid-19

17 June 2020 Consultancy.uk

While the likes of Scotland, France and the Netherlands have ended their footballing seasons prematurely to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the top two tiers of English football are about to join Germany, Spain and Italy in resuming their suspended seasons. While the matter remains controversial, new research has shown that playing football is actually much less of a risk for transmitting Covid-19 than previously thought.

Europe is slowly but sure easing its lock-down measures, as the coronavirus’ rate of infection finally begins to decline. After three long months, non-essential businesses are beginning to open, and people are gradually being allowed to see small numbers of loved-ones from beyond their own household socially.

The easing of the lock-down will come as welcome news to many businesses across the industrial spectrum, with many having seen their revenue streams majorly impacted by the pandemic. For all its hyper-inflated transfer fees and multi-billion-pound take-overs of elite football, it has proven to be far from immune to these pressures. While the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy and Germany have managed to leverage their clout to extract huge revenues from broadcasters to showcase their product, Covid-19 jeopardised this vital stream of income – after many clubs had long spent advances from their TV money.

With no new sport to show, broadcasters had begun to press for a massive rebate of the money they had paid – placing many top football clubs in a difficult position; face the massive solvency issues repaying broadcast money would bring, or push for play to resume behind closed doors. While in leagues where the bulk of clubs cannot depend on huge broadcast revenues for survival, this was a straight-forward choice, inevitably the likes of the Premier League and La Liga resolved to restart.

Research suggests football can be played safely during Covid-19

The move to restart has caused a great deal of controversy since it was announced, with a number of experts and players warning that rushing back to work could put their health, or the health of their families at risk. However, while cramming a stadium with thousands of fans would indeed put many people at risk, a new study from the Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond (the Dutch national football association known as the KNVB) undertaken by analysis firm Inmotio suggests that transmitting Covid-19 via football may be much harder than previously thought.

The football association and the data analysis agency together examined close to 500 Eredivisie matches to see how many "close contacts" there are between the players, and how long they last. Assuming medical examinations for coronavirus are accurate in the assertion that there is no risk of contamination if you are less than 30 centimeters apart for more than three minutes, the report found that in 98.2% of the examined matches, there was minimal or no risk for footballers to transmit a virus to one-another. In the vast majority of cases, the contact moments between players did not exceed the 30-second mark.

Coupled with numerous studies that have shown coronavirus infections via open air spaces are rare, officials from the Netherlands has determined that the risk of contamination via football is minimal. The analysis shows that celebrating goals actually accounted for 35% of all contact moments on the field, and corners for 45%.

Corners?

While corners cannot be avoided, the researchers also believe that contact moments can be considerably reduced here. The time given to take a corner may go down, and when multiple corners are given in succession, the attacking team may be required to leave the 16-meter area in between. Provided protocols are followed such as avoiding hand contact (as seen in the Bundesliga since its restart), Edwin Goedhart, Head of the KNVB medical staff and doctor of the Dutch national team, told newspaper Het Parool participating in team sport is relatively safe to do.

Goedhart, who participated in the research in recent weeks, stated, “Honestly, our conclusions surprise me too… You can never completely rule out the risk of contamination, but if you stay at home when you are sick and keep a good distance in the dressing room, playing football on the field is safe."

Football-distancing

Epidemiologist Patricia Bruijning of the University Medical Center Utrecht also argued football could be safely played again, but emphasised that social-distancing measures must also be properly monitored outside the field.

“You have to think about the conditions around it, such as dealing with each other in the dressing room, not hugging each other, not drinking from each other's water bottle, not carpooling to an away game. You can make agreements about that,” she told Dutch broadcaster NOS.

With regards to the state of play in the UK, this could be used as grounds to open up team sport for public participation once more. The daily number of new coronavirus cases in Britain is yet to fall beneath 1,000; however June 11th did see the UK report no new deaths from the virus for the first time since March 10th.

This has been used as reason to ease lock-down measures in relation to businesses, as the nation attempts to jump-start its stalled economy. However, despite the great risks that involves being apparently worthwhile, there are still strict rules policing people’s home-lives. One of these prohibits playing team sports like football with non-household members, meaning that football is currently only returning as an elite pursuit in relation to its business status.

This leaves millions of football lovers out in the cold, and is somewhat at odds with the perception of football being the beautiful game of the masses. However, the evidence from the KNVB and Inmotio suggests the Government could afford to ease off on these restrictions too – especially as grassroots sport does not require the swarm of staff, management, officials, media personnel and medical professionals that staging a top-level professional game necessitates.


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