The rhetoric escalated quickly. Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish Football Federation, labeled La Liga’s hiring of a private medical service to give COVID-19 test kits to its 500 players at the expense of society’s more vulnerable members “irresponsible and totally unpatriotic.” La Liga president Javier Tebas defended himself from Rubiales’ accusation, saying that now is not the appropriate time “to talk about patriotism or who is more patriotic” considering the circumstances. Three La Liga sides in Real Valladolid, Osasuna, and Eibar de-escalated the situation by donating their testing kits to the public.
“We believe there are other groups that are less privileged and in more need. They are the ones that should have priority,” said a Real Valladolid spokesman, providing levity and refocusing attention back to more significant, immediate matters.
Rubiales’ accusation reveals a larger moral question of the role of athletes during the current pandemic, with testing kits a limited resource. We shouldn’t be surprised that athletes have access to kits, as we created their elevated roles and perceived importance in our everyday lives. Besides, is the “right” answer for athletes to turn down testing? One of many lessons of this pandemic is how equally the virus spreads across individuals, professional athlete or not.
“Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick,” tweeted New York City mayor Bill de Blasio after every player on the Brooklyn Nets received COVID-19 tests before the larger New York public. Similar to the tension in La Liga, the criticism brought to light the uneven access to potentially life-saving resources. NBA commissioner Adam Silver instead placed the attention on the “fundamental issue” of insufficient testing. Likewise, Michele Roberts, the executive of the league’s players association, deflected blame from the players to the government. Roberts even went as far as telling players to not be embarrassed by the potential stigma and backlash attached to getting tested for the virus.
It is interesting to contrast the focus on patriotic duty versus economic disparity in the criticism of each league, perhaps revealing a deeper, underlying tension of the contemporary cultural psyche. But in echoing Tebas, Roberts added that now was not the moment to be discussing these matters when faced with an uncertain future.
Regardless of morality, the debate in Spain further exposed animosities between La Liga president Javier Tebas and Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales. The heads of the two most important groups in Spanish football previously clashed on whether La Liga matches should be played outside of Spain (that the two quarreling sides released a joint statement suspending the league indefinitely proves the seriousness of the virus, although they began arguing again after Rubiales floated the idea of creating a $540 million fund for Spanish clubs). Tebas spoke of the relationship between La Liga players and larger Spanish society as a collaboration. Players provide entertainment and significance to a mass audience with sports as a gateway to imagining what the country could achieve, while the audience provides the attention, adulation, and engagement needed to complete the lucrative loop.
One consequence of this lockdown, and life without sport, could be a re-examination of our relationship with athletes. Tebas played up the unity by saying “there are no first-class and second-class citizens” despite examples that the pandemic could further economic inequality.
There are, however, more traditional ways to prove solidarity and attempt to transcend the line between professional athlete and audience. Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola both donated to hospitals in Barcelona. Sergio Ramos made a donation of over 200,000 masks and 15,000 testing supplies. Valencia, the club hardest hit in Spain by COVID-19 thus far, donated medical supplies to local hospitals.
Players have also been asked to consider the financial structure of a club by taking a pay cut while matches are suspended. Barcelona looked for athletes across all of their sports to take a 70 percent pay cut to keep the club afloat (members of the men’s soccer team reportedly rejected that scenario). And while no La Liga side has instituted a formal freeze, the member-owned Barcelona are uniquely suited to take the lead without the luxury of wealthy, outside investors.
While we asked what responsibility a player has to society, the responsibility between player and club is much more clear cut. It is literally a contract, with terms made explicit, signed by both parties. We often hear the refrain of “it’s just business” whenever the two sides part, whether on positive or negative terms. That connotation adds a distance between player - a human with emotion - and a club - a nebulous entity making “difficult” decisions based on spreadsheets, numbers, and future projections.
So should a player necessarily agree to a pay cut when they themselves could be cut some years down the line? Is a football club a business, or a societal good?
Saul, meanwhile, has taken an approach of teaching Spanish society to fish. His initiative, translated as “We’ll Come Through This Together”, features a website where small business owners, the self-employed, and health care workers can register to receive advice from experts and consultants on how to keep business afloat during a pandemic. The players - the collaborators - who include Alvaro Morata and Sergio Busquets, provide the publicity and attention to small businesses. Saul’s vision is to help people achieve success in a post-virus world, when the economy has returned to some sort of normalcy.
“If we’re going to come out of this, we have to do it together,” said Saul of his goals for the project.
After nearly six weeks stranded in Spain, unable to return home due to a quarantine in their home city, Wuhan Zall FC players and staff finally returned to Wuhan in mid-March to prepare for their upcoming Chinese Super League season.
Led by Spanish manager Jose Gonzalez, the team arrived at a luxury resort in southern Spain for preseason training in late January. Several opponents canceled friendlies against the side due to the stigma attached from the epidemic (one team official said it was like they were coming from a town “called Ebola”). After an initial hesitation, their new host country showed the bonds that transcend the sport. La Liga invited the squad to its headquarters, and gave them tickets to El Clasico. The league also donated five tons of hand sanitizer to Wuhan in a show of solidarity.
After six weeks in Spain, Gonzalez’s side experienced a role reversal. With the virus largely contained in Wuhan, it was now Spain that declared a state of emergency.
“We were running away from a difficult situation in China, and now we are running away from a difficult one in Spain,” said Gonzalez of seeing two epidemics unfold over different timelines.
Wuhan Zall’s preseason journey traces the global nature of both epidemic and sport. A logistical fear of restarting the Champions League this season is also its strength, in matching up the top teams from all over the continent. The tie between Valencia and Atalanta at San Siro has been blamed for spreading the virus in Bergamo. What is the price of sporting joy? The communal bonds that soccer inspires was used against it, though there are still examples of that underlying connection in glimpses, away from the empty fields.