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7 April 2020

With many nations looking east for assistance in their pandemic responses, ties currently forming may have a lasting impact on the footballing world, Simon Chadwick writes.

It has been some weeks now since most of us watched live football, although there’s still been a match going on albeit staged without the likes of Messi and Ronaldo being involved.

The game of giving has reignited the football season as debate has raged about how clubs treat their staff and whether players are responding to the current crisis in the right way.

Some, including the English Premier League’s  Tottenham Hotspur, have furloughed non-playing staff whilst continuing to pay players their full salaries.

This has incited criticism, and many have castigated stars for their apparent lack of social conscience, especially fans who have criticised wealthy owners for taking money from government to pay the wages of some staff.

However, as many continue to bemoan the supposedly impoverished morality of modern football, there is a counter-argument to it. Indeed, few seem to be highlighting an outbreak of generosity in the sport, the likes of which has possibly never been seen before.

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Some players are displaying an awareness of their duties and obligations in these turbulent times, which includes players such as Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson who is leading an initiative that could see his fellow professionals in England taking a pay cut.

Yet such initiatives seem almost trivial among numerous, much bigger shows of generosity that are becoming increasingly apparent. But these are not about football’s biggest names taking a minor hit to their lavish lifestyles, they instead signify what 21st century football had become and is likely to remain.

As its Premier League rivals have furloughed staff, Manchester City has taken the decision not to. It would be nice to think that the club’s owners – the Abu Dhabi owned City Football Group – are displaying a level of social responsibility that many of its closest rivals have thus far been unable to match.

Or, perhaps, City is simply a better managed club than others though, many would argue, one that was more lavishly resourced in the first place. However, this generosity needs to be set in the context of an impending case that is due to be heard in the Court for Arbitration in Sport, where City are appealing a UEFA penalty for breaching its Financial Fair Play regulations.

An argument can be made that not furloughing staff is actually reputation management wrapped in generosity, rather than altruism. In this context, one therefore also wonders what the end goals of Abu Dhabi’s other public displays of social solidarity might be.

For instance, the small Gulf region emirate just waived rental fees at its ExCel Centre in London, which has been turned into a 4000-bed coronavirus hospital. Such generosity is much needed, though it is undoubtedly embedded in a wider network of political and geopolitical interests.

Some might think such a view is churlish and unnecessarily cynical during these deeply troubling times. However, the game plan for geopolitical generosity in football has been evident for months. In fact, the seeds of it have been germinating for several years.

In hard hit Italy, Inter Milan was amongst a number of high-profile organisations that rushed to assist the government’s fight against COVID-19, with the club donating 300,000 medical masks to the Italian Civil Protection Agency. It also donated other healthcare products including protective clothing and disinfectants.

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Tellingly, the Milanese club is owned by a Chinese company, Suning, which undertook to engage its supply chain network to support Inter’s efforts.

These should in turn be set against the backdrop of the turbulence currently afflicting Italy’s relationship with the European Union.

As Brussels has gone cold on Italy, so government in Rome has turned eastwards to Beijing to look for support. Football has thus proved to be a helpful enabler of this relationship, especially in this case given an existing and strong predisposition of many Chinese people towards Italian football.

China’s companies and its various interests in football across Europe are never more than a step or two away from government in Beijing. The fight against COVID-19 is therefore presenting some interesting opportunities for diplomacy and generosity that are likely to have an enduring impact.

But it is not just in Italy where such a convergence and alignment of multiple interests is manifesting itself. In the Czech Republic, China has been playing football diplomacy for some years. The country’s leading club, Slavia Prague, is even owned by an investor whose links to the Chinese government remain open to question.

Relations between Prague and Beijing had been souring of late, though the current viral crisis may herald a rapprochement between the two. China has been supplying the Czechs with large amounts of medical supplies, and Slavia Prague may therefore become instrumental to inter-country relations again in the future.

A similar scenario is evident in Croatia; a country also increasingly beholden to China and its current help, but a country that has also willingly played along with Beijing’s policy of football diplomacy.

With ties being solidified by COVID-19’s severity, we should therefore expect projects such as HNK Rijeka’s new stadium to proceed with alacrity once current challenges are overcome. Last year, China’s Top International Engineering Cooperation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the football club to construct the new venue.

As China plays the game of geopolitical generosity across the Adriatic, in the Balkans Russia is joining in. For years, Moscow has been using football as a means through which to cultivate political favour in Serbia. This has been premised upon mutual gas interests that have seen Belgrade’s – and Serbia’s – leading club Crvena Zvevda (Red Star Belgrade) first signing a sponsorship deal with Russia’s Gazprom, then later being reportedly subject to a takeover bid by the gas behemoth.

Recently, relations between Moscow and Belgrade soured as Serbia looked towards the European Union, which meant that Gazprom never followed through with its interest in acquiring the one-time European Cup winners.

However, with the European Union stuttering and stumbling in its response to COVID-19, so Moscow has ridden to Serbia’s rescue. More than a dozen planes have flown from Russian with medical supplies. Post-virus, one suspects that football diplomacy between the two countries may therefore ascend the political agenda once more.

As most of us continue to grapple with the absence of live football from our lives, it is nevertheless important to remember that the game still goes on. There’s plenty of penalty box action and high scoring games taking place. But this is embodied in the current geopolitics of generosity, rather than at the Bernabeu or Old Trafford.

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