How Do You Report on Football When There's No Football to Report On?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 28, 2020

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Fans around Europe desperate for a football fix were spoilt for choice last weekend. The only problem was that none of the football being shown on television was live.

In Spain, Movistar La Liga showed re-runs of memorable Barcelona-Real Madrid showdowns from years gone by, along with repeats of top-flight games from earlier in the campaign. Movistar's dedicated Champions League channel revisited the best action from the season so far in the Bundesliga and Serie A.

Sky Sport Italia delved into its back catalogue of Champions League action, screening highlights from classic matches in the competition's history. The previous weekend, the channel had dedicated an entire day to Italy's 2006 World Cup success, culminating in full re-runs of the semi-final win over Germany and the triumph over France in the final.

In Germany, Sky Sport showed repeats of matches from the Bundesliga, Premier League and Champions League, while public service station ARD aired a documentary about German referee Deniz Aytekin. It was a similar story in France, with beIN Sports showing the national team's final three knockout games from the 2018 World Cup, Canal+ broadcasting a selection of major Premier League head-to-heads from earlier this season and RMC Sport airing a documentary about Zinedine Zidane. Supporters in England, meanwhile, had a choice between Premier League retrospectives and Championship highlights on Sky or action from the Australian A-League on BT Sport.

There was football everywhere, but with leagues around Europe currently in suspended animation due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was not football that anyone was particularly keen to watch. It has left broadcasters and journalists across the continent asking themselves the same question: How do you report on football when there's no football taking place?

For those working in the football journalism industry, as with everyone else currently on lockdown around the world, the first challenge has been adapting to the problems posed by having to work from home. For Europe's historic sports newspapers, that has meant recalibrating meticulously well-oiled, time-sensitive operations involving hundreds of members of staff in multiple locations. Thanks to modern technology, the printing presses have continued to roll.

"A few short days after the government declared the quarantine, 100 per cent of our staff were working from home," AS journalist Jorge Fernandez Maldonado tells Bleacher Report from Madrid.

"It's a very strange feeling to have something as co-operative as making a newspaper suddenly being done by journalists who are all working from home. Luckily, with the internet, it can be done in almost the same way. The technology allows you to update the website and prepare the actual newspaper while staying in contact using WhatsApp and video calls."

The natural first priority for most media organisations that cover football is to keep their readers and viewers abreast of the latest developments regarding the coronavirus pandemic, from reports on players who have tested positive for COVID-19 to the latest discussions on when Europe's major championships might be able to resume. The continent's most famous footballers have also been providing their own streams of content via social media, be it snapshots of their training routines or videos of their attempts at the ubiquitous "toilet roll challenge."

But as much as football fans want to know how long the current situation is likely to last and how it is affecting their favourite players, there is only so much information about the coronavirus that a person can—or wants to—take on board.

"It's a question of balance," says Jerome Cazadieu, managing editor of French sports newspaper L'Equipe. "We try to talk about the coronavirus, but not only the coronavirus. Because everyone's talking about it. If we can talk about other things, it's good."

At La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's oldest and most widely read sports newspaper, the number of journalists involved in the production of each daily edition has halved from around 140 to under 70, with staff rotating periods of leave. At the start of this week, there were only 10 journalists still working at the paper's offices on Via Solferino in Milan, but even they will be working from home soon.

"I follow Inter normally, so we're talking about how their players are trying to keep fit, their plans for the restart and things about stats from the championship so far," says Milan-based Gazzetta reporter Valerio Clari.

"A bit of transfer market stuff, even if the people [at Inter] who are working on it say it's not the moment to think about it because they're still managing the economic effects [of the coronavirus pandemic]. Also doing some nostalgic things, like old matches. You know, 10 years on from the Inter Triplete, things like that. There's still a discussion about how to get the most entertaining things in the newspaper. We're still looking for the right recipe."

With pages to fill that would ordinarily be dedicated to previewing and reviewing the latest matches, trips down memory lane have come to feature even more prominently than usual. 

L'Equipe recently ran a set of articles on the rivalry between Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille. AS has been producing regular features on the crossover between politics and sport, with one recent article focusing on the background role of Argentina's military junta at the 1978 World Cup. Monday's edition of German football magazine kicker included a piece about the hapless Hannover side of 1985-86 who were relegated from the Bundesliga after conceding 92 goals in 34 games.

Inevitably, the uncertainty surrounding when top-level football will resume makes journalists anxious about what lies ahead, not least when their own livelihoods could be at stake. And if it is a challenge to come up with fresh story ideas now, when the continent's football stadiums fell silent only two weeks ago, the problem will become even more pronounced the longer the shutdown goes on.

"You have to take care not to write all the ideas that you have now," says German football journalist Julian Franzke. "We might have a long time. I have some ideas and stories for the next few weeks, but if you do it all in the next two weeks, in three weeks you will have a problem."

Franzke reports on Eintracht Frankfurt for kicker and has been indebted to the club for providing continued access to players and coaches in spite of the blackout, with players such as Sebastian Rode and Goncalo Paciencia put up for interview via conference call.

"I sometimes criticise the media staff from the club, but in the crisis, they are helpful," Franzke says. "They're trying to make things possible so that we have things to write about."

While enforced closures of shops and newspaper kiosks have made it harder for readers across Europe to get their hands on copies of their favourite daily paper, many sports websites have noticed a significant increase in online traffic. L'Equipe, for example, has seen the rate of new subscribers to its digital edition multiply by five or six. But with much less content now appearing in each edition than usual, the paper has dropped its price from €1.80 to €1.00.

"What we're offering has diminished in the sense that we're producing fewer pages than before," says Cazadieu. "We also need to show solidarity with people. Some of our readers are in partial unemployment, some are in full unemployment. Not all of them will still be working. So we're making a gesture that shows we're trying to take their difficulties into account."

Football may have ground to a halt across Europe, but it is continuing in Belarus, which last weekend staged the first round of fixtures in the 2020 Belarusian Premier League season. Fans had their temperature taken before being allowed to watch defending champions' Dynamo Brest's 1-1 draw with Smolevichi, and players on some teams were instructed not to shake hands with their opponents. But the eight matches otherwise took place as normal, albeit in front of lower-than-average crowds (down from around 4,000 to around 1,300 compared to last season's opening weekend).

Football is continuing in Belarus
Football is continuing in BelarusSergei Grits/Associated Press

The launch of the Belarusian top-flight season was in line with the stance taken by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of the former Soviet state, who has urged people not to "panic" about the coronavirus outbreak, which remains in its infancy in Belarus. Amid the paralysis elsewhere, it has given the Belarusian Premier League a rare moment in the continental spotlight, with major television stations in neighbouring Russia and Ukraine buying rights to broadcast the championship for the first time.

"Belarusian football is becoming popular!" says Sergey Nikolaev from Belarusian sports newspaper Pressball. "Maybe for Belarusian players, it's good. If they play well, they can show themselves to Europe and the outside world and maybe get themselves a transfer.

"For us journalists, it's also good, from a practical point of view, because we have something to write about. Because otherwise, it would be more difficult to find topics for coverage."

For Belarus, a world with no football remains a feared tomorrow. For everywhere else, it is a very real today.

      

Additional reporting by Richard Fitzpatrick

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