Covid-19 and football: Should people be upset at players hugging?

LONODN (BBC): This week footballers have been reminded that “handshakes, high fives and hugs must be avoided” with extra scrutiny on every aspect of life under lockdown in a coronavirus pandemic.

BBC Sport looks at the arguments on both sides of this debate.

Regardless of how often players are tested, at a time when hospitals are overwhelmed and the government is desperate to persuade people to respect social distancing, it is easy to see why the scenes of players flouting football’s rules on unnecessary contact when celebrating is unhelpful.

With most of us unable to hug our relatives, and so much in life and work shut down, the onus is naturally on those in elite sport to be seen to set the right example, follow what appear to be simple rules, and justify the privilege they enjoy in being allowed to carry on.

Others however, fear it is unfair and contradictory to ask players to provide entertainment, while at the same time suppressing their natural instincts. Some believe it is a tactic by politicians to divert from other issues, and robs the game of much-needed joy. Ministers are not minded to suspend elite sport again at this stage. They recognise it is a welcome distraction for many, does not drive transmission in the community, and that protocols and testing have largely been a success.

But after players breached restrictions while off-duty over the festive period, and with the prospect of the national lockdown being tightened, the sports minister has now issued his sternest warning to date, and football’s authorities are under pressure.

Sadly, every goal celebration will now be scrutinised, and it will be fascinating to see what is deemed to be excessive, and whether the threat of fines changes behaviour. Stand by for lots more controversy.

Case for

Since it restarted after the first lockdown early last year, football has shown it can adapt and operate to the unprecedented circumstances it finds itself in. Elite footballers are among the most tested people in the country, with those in the Premier League and English Football League (EFL) tested for coronavirus twice a week.

And, given the outside nature of the sport, the risk of transmission of the virus is lower.

In the updated guidelines issued by the Premier League this week, players were reminded of the importance of good hygiene and wearing face masks. They were also reminded of the importance of social distancing, including during goal celebrations.

But in the spur of the moment, how could this be policed? Who could deny Sheffield United a little celebration after they secured their first win of the Premier League season on Tuesday night? Or when Manchester United went top of the table for the first time since the Sir Alex Ferguson era?

BBC football reporter Simon Stone says: “I have been lucky enough to go to a lot of games since Project Restart. “Obviously there are no fans but aside from that and social distancing among substitutes and coaching staff, on the pitch, everything is more or less the same.

“Players argue with referees, managers moan at fourth officials, players dive, they deliberately foul and obstruct each other, they make hard tackles and try to get an edge that can make a difference. I would say they are ‘in the zone’ of being an athlete.

“I understand the debate around celebrations but I do not think it is feasible that in the moment of scoring a goal, in a high-pressure situation – it is reasonable to expect players to immediately step out of their ‘zone’, suddenly remember what is happening in the rest of society, then step back into it again once the match starts.”

Quite simply, we are in a global pandemic. More than 80,000 people have died with coronavirus in the UK alone, and we are, once again, living under lockdown.

For almost a year, we have been unable to hug loved ones and many people have not left their home in months, while parents are having to take on the added pressures of home-schooling their children.

So when they are seeing players embracing each other after goals, singing their hearts out in changing rooms, arms flung around shoulders, it is, for some, a kick in the teeth.

But it’s not just on-the-field breaches or those within the football environment which are causing issues. Over the festive period, there were several breaches of coronavirus protocols with players from various clubs attending or hosting parties.

In recent weeks, many clubs have reported outbreaks of coronavirus, leading to several Premier League matches being postponed.

Speaking after Manchester United’s win over Burnley, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said: “It’s an emotional game. We have to understand the players when they celebrate.” However, he did concede that they “understand the concern nowadays for a bit of less emotions and less hugging”.

Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson said: “People have ingrained habits when a goal is scored. The emotion and joy of that moment, there is a risk players will still run to each other. I don’t know what managers and coaches can do more than hammer home the messages and protocols.”