soccer covid

(Vienna Reyes, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Letzing, Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum

  • Organized sport is starting to reemerge, but it won’t look the same for a while.
  • Some experts say even with precautions in place, restarting games risks spreading the coronavirus.

A player for German soccer club Hertha Berlin recently raised eyebrows when he appeared to plant a kiss on a teammate during a 3-0 victory – flouting coronavirus-related guidelines. Officials said no sanctions were forthcoming, however, because while celebratory embraces may now be frowned upon they’re not strictly “verboten”.

The Bundesliga’s restart last weekend in front of empty stadiums marked a significant leg in what promises to be an awkward, uneven race to restore global sport. To be sure, some games never stopped, even as COVID-19 steadily exacted a global death toll that now exceeds 320,000 (Belarussian soccer has persisted throughout, for example). But the vast majority of organized sport was dramatically curtailed by social-distancing measures. And even after its return, it probably won’t look quite the same for a long time.

While Germany’s soccer players (mostly) refrain from group hugs, swimmers have been preparing for virtual meets, the National Football League has been testing new face masks with surgical material, and a soccer club in Seoul has resorted to replacing fans with sex dolls.

While professional baseball teams in Taiwan, China were playing in front of cardboard cutouts before recently allowing in limited numbers of fans, in other parts of the world competition never got started. Major League Baseball in North America planned to begin its season on 26 March, a day when the US was instead being declared the epicentre of the pandemic. Last week, however, MLB issued new guidelines including a call for players to spread out in empty stands during games rather than in crowded dugouts, ramping up speculation that play may start soon. Japan may also soon restart pro baseball in what is the top-ranked country in the men’s version of the sport.

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The curtailing of sport has had a big financial impact, with one analysis suggesting it will erase about $12 billion in revenue in the US alone.


For some of the most popular teams on the planet, it may prove difficult to restrain their fans in a responsible way as the pandemic persists. The soccer club Manchester United, for example, recently urged supporters to stay away from closed-door matches if the Premier League resumes play as anticipated.

Image: World Economic Forum

Not every spectator-friendly game has suffered. Viewership numbers for esports, for example, have increased amid coronavirus-related lockdowns. While the slow return of more traditional sport may be heartening for many people, it’s also raising concerns about potential repercussions. Virologists have warned that even with precautions, restarting sporting events could mean restarting the spread of COVID-19.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Playing soccer without fans can have a serious impact on outcomes – according to the studies cited in this analysis, empty grounds can effectively mean a removal of “home” advantage. (The Conversation)
  • The post-COVID soccer world can learn something from the experience of the Koreas, which played a World Cup qualifying match against each other in front of an empty, 50,000-seat stadium in Pyongyang last year. (The Diplomat)
  • Baseball-starved Americans have been delighted by a deal made to broadcast games from South Korea, but this author sees it as part of a return to normalcy that could lull people into a dangerous sense of complacency. (New Yorker)
  • Baseball has deep psychological roots in the country where it was invented. Historians argue that the game helped rural Americans retain a sense of achievement in a rapidly industrializing world. (JSTOR Daily)
  • In some places, a lack of fans congregating at matches could translate into better air quality. This analysis found a “meaty link” between spikes in poor air quality in Santiago and big matches played in Chile’s capital city by the national soccer team. (Nature)
  • The vast majority of professional soccer clubs in the United Kingdom can’t survive without paying customers, but this editorial argues that the government shouldn’t bail out clubs moving ahead with unrealistic plans to resume play. (Institute of Economic Affairs)
  • Regardless of the delayed start to the Chinese soccer season and the possibility of spectator-less matches, Guangzhou Evergrande FC is pushing ahead with the construction of a $1.7 billion stadium that would surpass the seating capacity of Barcelona’s legendary Camp Nou. (RADII)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find visualizations and feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Arts and Culture and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum