Talking Heads – Discussing the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on football

With the world crippled by the COVID 19 pandemic, global football has come to a grinding halt as countries focus on trying to contain the disease. To date, 39,000 people have lost their lives and just over 800,000 have been affected by the virus; with those numbers unfortunately growing by the day. The hope is that with government driven measures being introduced at a country by country level, the spread of the disease can be slowed enough to give the health care workers on the front line enough time to support those who are currently sick and the medical community time to find a viable treatment.

Like most industries, the football world is feeling the effects of the global shutdown. Clubs who have stopped operating for now have had to make drastic cuts to stay afloat with many laying off ground and administrative staff in the process. At some of the larger clubs like Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona, players have accepted temporary pay cuts in an attempt to help the club staff not on the pitch. But for other players who play in the lower divisions and operate on a pay check to pay check basis, its a more worrisome time with a very uncertain future ahead of them.

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Rhys McCabe and Maurice Ross answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

To get a better sense of how the situation is affecting the football world, we spoke to Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe. Caldwell is a former Scotland international defender who is the president of League1 Ontario club Oakville Blue Devils FC, as well as an assistant coach of the Canadian national team. Fellow internationalist Ross is working as first team coach at Motherwell in Scotland whilst former Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Scotland Under 21 midfielder Rhys McCabe currently plays for Brechin City in the Scottish League Two. We spoke to them about the current situation, how it’s affecting football and what the future holds.

BOTN: Let’s go to Rhys first. Tell is about the current situation regarding your existing contract and what the league suspension means for you.

McCabe: My current situation is that my short term contract is meant to finish at the end of May, start of June. But I can’t think about that for now. The (league) suspension I feel is right as 100% of the focus must be on the health and wellbeing of everyone. Until we get this pandemic under control, nothing else matters.

There are a lot of uncertainties at the moment. Are they finishing this season? Will delays mean more games and more into next season? Will there be a new league structure?. There are lots of components which will play a role. Already its been three weeks without sport and people are in a pickle with what to do. Sport is a huge part of our society and without that people feel lost.

BOTN: Maurice, as first team coach at SPL side Motherwell, how are you feeling about the current situation and the suspension of the league?

Ross: Like all football people we like to be outdoors and competing. This of course is not the case due to the virus. I’m so bored. Plenty long walks and lying in bed a bit longer is no substitute for getting up and going to work! I miss that so much! Planning sessions, correcting movements of players and just that feeling of achieving something each day. Sooner this is resolved the better.

BOTN: Is the club concerned about the uncertainty of the suspension and the financial implications?

Ross: The club are doing all the planning possible to forecast what the future looks like depending on when/if we get back to playing. We are lucky we are in a relatively good position financially just now but we know there will be challenges ahead, so we will rely on our fans to help us through joining the Well Society or buying season tickets soon.

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

BOTN: Steven, there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of what will happen to the existing league and cup campaigns in the various different countries. How would you resolve the league situations?

Caldwell: The leagues have to be finished in my opinion. There is no way you can start a new season until the previous one has been concluded. The knock on affect might be a modified 2020/21 season but it’s my belief the previous one has to be brought to a conclusion whenever that may be.

Ross: From our (Motherwell) prospective, we will follow the advice and decisions of government and football authorities. Obviously we are third and in a European position so we would want the season to be played to a completion if there was any way at all possible, but we will accept whatever people say because this is bigger than football – it’s people’s health!

BOTN: What impact do you think this enforced break will have on the players mentally and physically? If the league is to restart at a point in the future, will players be able to pick up from where they left off with ease?

Caldwell: I don’t think they will be able to pick up with ease. There is no doubt it will have an affect. Normally at this time of the season teams are in their peak and rhythm is at its optimal point. I think it may have a pre season feel when it resumes. The players will be affected mentally and physically however I don’t see this being a great problem when the season continues.

McCabe: This pandemic is and will have a huge impact on players as its almost like an off season schedule. To then come back into things fully committed and ready when your body on a normal basis would have a 5 week period to do a pre season and prepare for the demands of a season. The risk of injury will be higher and no matter how much you train and keep fit during this time there is nothing that compares to match sharpness. Nothing in a training format can replicate this . That’s just a fact.

On the mental side, I feel it will have an impact on players but not just players; society as a whole. For over 30+ years there has been a culture of “football Saturday” where people look forward to and live for the weekend of football, wherever that may be home or away or a simple match on the tv. It’s become more social every season with the media and Sky broadcasting live matches.

This all has a knock on effect as people will be lost with nothing to do or look forward to. Trying to fill that void will be very hard but the priority 100% is the health and safety and trying to get this under control.

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Footballer like Lionel Messi and Marcelo have been keeping themselves busy in home isolation by juggling toilet rolls

BOTN: The financial implications of this pandemic will be felt throughout all levels of football with several reports suggesting clubs could go bust as a result. Do you think this will happen or is it up to FIFA or local governing bodies to stop this?

Caldwell: There is an enormous money in the game of football. Now it’s up to those that have to provide that assistance to make sure all forms of the game are protected. I sincerely hope that this happens and this unprecedented crisis creates an understanding of what truly makes this game beautiful.

BOTN: Let’s focus on the players for a moment. There will be a lot of players who are looking towards this summer with much trepidation due to the need to move clubs or indeed find a new one if their contracts run out. Do you anticipate that players will be expected to make personal sacrifices as football gets back on its feet following this pandemic?

Caldwell: Yes I think players will make personal sacrifices. They will have to. The intricacies and knock on effect of this is wide reaching and it will certainly have an impact on those who are becoming a free agent in the summer. It’s hard to tell at this moment however I think it will have a detrimental impact financially for such players.

BOTN: Rhys, your contract is up at the end of the season. How concerned are you about this summer when your contract concludes especially as it’s still unknown when the football season will resume?

McCabe: Concerned may be the word for a lot of people out of contract with Bill’s to pay and no job to do so, but for me it’s more about the love for it and when it will actually commence and what exactly the structure and format is going to be?

ContractLaw

With many players out of contract, the fast approaching summer brings further uncertainty.

BOTN: Has your club (Brechin City) been one touch with you about renewing your contract or given you any reassurances?

McCabe: With what’s going on, it hasn’t been spoken about as I would imagine the list of to dos at the club are through the roof. I’m only contracted until the end of May regardless so I will see what my options are then.

BOTN: Maurice, Are Motherwell making contingency plans for the various different scenarios and what will happen to players and staff out of contract in the summer?

Ross: I can’t comment on the final question as I am not privy to the ins and outs of all contracts. However this football club always behaves in an ethical and professional manner so I’m sure whatever happens Motherwell will act accordingly.

BOTN: There is clearly a lot of unknowns about what will happen and what decisions will come as a result. This leads us to the question around communications. Let’s start with you Rhys. Have you had any communications from the PFA Scotland about what’s happening long term?

McCabe: The PFA Scotland have been updating the players on a regular basis with knowledge, advice, help and updates they hear through the governing body. Again it’s hard at the moment because there is no definite answer on how to treat this and until the government have a plan in place we have to wait. But they have been great with regular updates and support.

BOTN: Finally Steven do you think FIFA and UEFA have been vocal enough during this pandemic or do you think they are leaving the decisions primarily to the local federations?

Caldwell: I think there is so much uncertainty that Uefa and FIFA don’t know what to say at the moment. I think they are concerned about giving definitive details and then having to go back on them. By mid to late April we will have a better understanding of how long this realistically is going to take and that’s when both organizations have to step up and be decisive with their actions.

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One On One with: Steven Caldwell

Football in its’ purest sense is about winning games and scoring goals. The need therefore for a quality striker is undeniable yet when it comes to building a team, most managers will build from the back with the belief that you keep a clean sheet and don’t concede then you stand a better chance of winning. Usually they turn to a formidable figure at centre half, one like our next interviewee, former Scotland defender Steven Caldwell. Over a 20 year playing career which saw Caldwell play for Newcastle, Birmingham, Burnley, Toronto FC and his national side, Caldwell became known as a no nonsense, reliable centre half who over the course of his career evolved into a natural leader both on and off the pitch.

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Now retired, Caldwell is using his knowledge and experiences in the game to forge ahead in his new career as an analyst for TSN in Canada where he now resides. I caught up with him recently in Toronto to discuss his time as a player, what it was like playing for Roberto Martinez and why he is looking forward to the World Cup in 2026. Enjoy!

Check out the full interview here:

With thanks again to Steven Caldwell. Check out Steven on TSN or on Instagram and on Twitter.

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Toronto Prepare For Life After Defoe

Toronto prepare for new season without Defoe (Image from Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport)After the drama of last week which finally saw troubled the English striker leave the club, Toronto FC are gearing up for life after Jermain Defoe. Replacing the English hit man will not be an easy task despite public opinion being split about his departure. Whilst generally unhappy during his time in Toronto and looking for the exit door, Defoe still proved valuable to the team when he did play. His 12 goals in 19 appearances for the club added a much needed threat up front for a team historically that have struggled in that department. Alongside fellow new arrivals Gilberto and Michael Bradley, Defoe stood out showcasing his quality and at times making it look simple when it came to his finishing. Toronto know that they need to find a like for like replacement for the pint sized striker, someone who can not only contribute goals but can inspire his teammates to excel at the same time.

Toronto prepare for life without Defoe after the striker's move to Sunderland  (Image from Getty)

Toronto prepare for life without Defoe after the striker’s move to Sunderland
(Image from Getty)

As part of the Defoe transfer, US striker Jozy Altidore moved the other way which should give Toronto a target man for next season. Altidore’s record at Sunderland was pretty appalling given the price they paid for the player. Having joined the club from Dutch side AZ Alkmaar for a reported $13 million transfer fee, the US front man only scored three times in 52 appearances and found himself consigned to the bench on a too frequent basis. In truth, the player struggled to adapt to life in the Premiership and it particular the overall pace of the game. Unlikely the Dutch league or MLS, the English Premiership is consistently considered one of the quickest leagues in the world and as a result is a culture shock to many non domestic players entering the league. Whilst Altidore possess many of the qualities needed to be a striker in England’s top division, his inability to adapt to the pace was ultimately his downfall. In stark contrast, his spell in the much slower Eredivisie was very successful with Altidore hitting the back of the net 45 times in 82 games in all competitions over two seasons.  Working alongside manager Gerjan Verbeek, Jozy found his rhythm and more importantly his confidence ending his first season with an impressive 22 goals. Unlike at Sunderland, Altidore was the benefactor of several good moves created by the Alkmaar midfield, namely through the excellent trio of Rasmus Elm, Brett Holman and Adam Maher. His form continued into the second season, scoring another 23 goals helping Alkmaar win the KNVB cup and earning himself a place on De Telegraaf’s “Team of the Season”, becoming the first American ever to do so. This prompted Sunderland to splash the cash but with a faster game and lack of supply, Altidore was set to fail before he even began.

Questions will be asked of how Altidore will cope back in the MLS and in particular with Toronto.  In a much slower league, Altidore should be able to adapt and having played in the MLS before as a rookie back in 2006, he should feel at home fairly quickly. Indeed the player who has now arrived at Toronto is much changed from the 19 year old that left for Villarreal in 2008. He is much more grounded now, more mature and at 25 is a fully established part of the US men’s national team. His experiences playing in Spain, Turkey, Holland and England will have taught him a lot about himself and now he will be asked to show that he can be a main star for one of the MLS franchises. At Toronto he will be one of the top players, alongside other designated players Gilberto and fellow US international teammate, Michael Bradley. He will be expected to lead from the front and score the goals needed to push the team forward. Altidore will look to the players behind him to create the chances which may be an issue with only really Bradley and Jackson able to create something from nothing.

However the imminent arrival of Italian international Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus could add the creative spark that the Toronto desperately needs. The 28 year old playmaker that can operate as an attacking midfielder, winger or striker is expected to be unveiled this week and will take on one of the designated player roles at the club which will likely mean that Gilberto either departs the club or is forced to take a pay cut to stay. Either way, Toronto will land a talented player who has pace and skill in abundance and will revolutionize the way that Toronto plays. Giovinco alongside Bradley will create the chances for Altidore to take which should help Toronto to climb the table and challenge next season. Head coach Greg Vanney will be hoping that Altidore can pick up where he left off at Alkmaar and forget about his torrid spell in England with Sunderland. If Altidore can resume his goal scoring prowess then the ghost of Defoe will finally be laid to rest with Toronto starting yet another chapter in their short but colourful history.

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Toronto Off To A Flyer But With A Long Way To Go

Defoe starts with a bang (Image from Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)It was the perfect start to the new season for Toronto F.C. with Jermaine Defoe hitting a brace on his debut for the club as they brushed aside Seattle by 2-1. But for Ryan Nielsen the work really now begins as he looks to put Toronto onto the footballing map once and for all. The team has invested heavily in the summer with a complete revamp of its first team squad. In has come some impressive name’s like Defoe, Michael Bradley, Julio Cesar and De Rosario to complement an already refurbished line up. Nelsen has built a solid experienced spine in Cesar, Steven Caldwell, Bradley and Defoe and is flooding his team with a mix of rising stars and established MLS players.

A Defoe brace sealed victory for TFC  (Image from Getty)

A Defoe brace sealed victory for TFC
(Image from Getty)

Against Seattle, the starting eleven looked solid enough from back to front. Justin Morrow, a pre season acquisition from San Jose Earthquakes looks capable enough at left back whilst Bradley Orr, a second half substitute against Seattle due to his slow recovery from illness, should make the right back position his own. Nelsen will look to captain Caldwell to nurture and sheppard rising star Doneil Henry at centre back as the duo look to complete a solid defence for Toronto. Brazilian Cesar will provide a much needed stable and reliable last line of defence as goalkeeper in this new look team. The capture of Cesar, even on loan, would have been the MLS signing of the year if Toronto hadn’t already nabbed that title with the double signing of Bradley and Defoe.

Safe Hands - Julio Cesar  (Image from Getty)

Safe Hands – Julio Cesar
(Image from Getty)

In the midfield, Bradley has a key role to play and his partnership with Jonathan Osorio in the centre of the park will be crucial to the team’s forward motion. Whilst Defoe will likely earn the plaudits for his goals, Toronto’s season hinges on whether Bradley and Osorio can form an effective working partnership and how quickly this happens. Against Seattle, there were early signs that this was a work in progress, with Bradley taking more of a leadership role. This was not unexpected given his experience versus his partners’ younger years but he needs to command the space and marshall his young companion more if Toronto is to flourish. Nelsen has the duo setup as cover for one another – if Bradley pushes forward, Osorio is to sit back and vice versa. But against Seattle this didn’t happen as much as needed and Toronto was duly punished for it when Seattle scored. With both Bradley and Osorio caught high up the pitch and out of position, a Dempsey inspired Seattle broke quickly with the US International striker latching on to the ball just inside the box to smash it under a diving Julio Cesar. Better teams than Seattle would have used this momentum to punish Toronto again but the Sounders looked dazed and confused by Defoe’s early brace. Toronto will need to be wary of this as the move forward in the season.

Dempsey punished Toronto after Bradley and Osario were caught out of position  (Image by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

Dempsey punished Toronto after Bradley and Osario were caught out of position
(Image by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

On the wings, Rey and Jackson were creative but looked and operated more as wide midfielders than traditional wingers. This could be a problem for Toronto as the season goes on, with a lack of out and out wingers at the club to create chances for Defoe. Nelsen may prefer to operate without them but he needs options and the ability to adjust tactics if needed, as teams start to get use to the way that Toronto will play this season. Letting Matias Laba leave may come back to haunt Nelsen in the long run. Up front, Toronto finally looks strong. Against Seattle Jermaine Defoe looked unstoppable. Whilst he limited his running to short bursts, he was effective in the game and showcased his finishing abilities with two superbly taken goals. With a revitalized De Rosario in support and Gilberto on his way back from injury, Toronto have what they have desperately sought after for years – a strike force to be feared. Keeping Defoe fit and free of injury will be key as well as maintaining his interest post this summer’s World Cup. Defoe is clearly out to prove to England boss Roy Hodgson that he can and should be part of his final squad and if he continues to score, it will be hard for Hodgson to ignore him. However if he doesn’t make the squad, motivation may be a factor and a Defoe that lacks conviction could spell financial disaster for Toronto. After a strong start, Toronto now head home and start preparations for Saturday’s game against DC united. The anticipation from the home fans will be another three points but with the season still stirring from its winter hibernation, have we really seen the true Toronto FC yet? Good or bad, they will interesting to watch this year.

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