Credit: Kirsten Colligan

The beautiful game (of counting): Covid cases, injuries and players

By Thomas Harris

Since the season’s first instance of postponement of football matches, games have been continuously cancelled as Covid and injuries continue to disrupt football leagues.

The rate of Covid infections in the English Football League (EFL) and English Premier League (EPL) has remained high among players and staff alike. With players constantly in and out of their team with the virus, injury rates have increased too. Healthy players are having to play every minute, while others are having to be rushed back from recovery to make up the numbers. Operating in this manner means players are unable to get needed rest and as such are at higher risk of injury.

The first case of postponing matches due to Covid came on December 14 when Manchester United was due to host Brentford. A number of the home players and staff received positive PCR tests with the fixture being called off just a day before. As of 22 January, 22 games had been postponed in the Premier League alone. Due to the impact of the high Covid rates, there were calls for a short term break from the league in December. This suggestion was rejected however and the league has continued in a similar vein, with no guarantee regarding the playing of each fixture. Additionally, with the African Cup of Nations kicking off on 9 January, squads have been depleted further as many African players have been called up for international duty. This coupled with Covid cases and injury rates has meant teams have been unable to field full teams of senior players with academy players having to fill in and in many instances, the match being called off. 

With a large number of postponements, the league has been scrutinised over whether all these cancellations are truly essential. Initially, matches were called off due to fears of spreading Covid. The case of abandoning fixtures due to other reasons has been widely questioned. Tottenham manager Antonio Conte disagreed with the decision to call off his teams’ match against Arsenal.  Arsenal was very much depleted due to injuries and AFCON, however, only a few absences were Covid-related. In response to the postponement, Conte said “We have a big problem to solve with Covid but only about this situation can you decide to postpone”. Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville commented, “What started out as postponements due to a pandemic has now become about clubs not having their best team”. It certainly seems as though if there is the potential for a match to be played at a later date where more senior players may be available, then an appeal is made. 

The impact of Covid remains a huge issue within the English game. There are reports that clubs are furious with how the whole ordeal has been handled by league officials, with some teams suggesting the situation has been handled unfairly, favouring certain teams. Of course, Covid is still hugely affecting all the world’s football leagues. For example, the clash between Inter Milan and Venezia on January 22 was at risk due to a Covid outbreak within the Venezia camp. Despite Covid being a huge issue globally, the English game remains the centre of controversy within this period of postponements. A key factor in this could well be the vaccination rates among footballers. In the Seria A, 98% of players were reported to be fully vaccinated as of October 2021. This figure was almost as high in the Bundesliga with 94% of players vaccinated. Some German clubs have introduced harsh measures in an attempt to encourage players to get vaccinated. Hertha Berlin for example, decided to make players opting against vaccination pay for their PCR tests. In the English Premier League however, only 68% of players were reported as fully vaccinated in October. Later on in December, the number had increased but 16% of players remained completely unvaccinated. The EFL meanwhile reportedly had only 75% of players vaccinated. With so many more players in the English leagues unvaccinated than in the other top leagues it becomes less surprising that the English game is suffering so much. It seems very possible that players’ reluctance to get the vaccine may be impacting the high rate of match postponements.

Despite the disruptions to the season, the Premier League is reportedly not looking to change its approach to dealing with Covid and the postponements of games. With major change looking unlikely at this stage of the season, premier league fans will likely be in for an end to the season filled with uncertainty and disruption.


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