Players kneeled in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and victims of the coronavirus were remembered as the Premier League made a sombre return on Wednesday from a 100-day shutdown that deprived England of its national sport.
Back on the touchline at Manchester City was Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, whose positive COVID-19 test led to English soccer’s longest suspension since the Second World War.
Britain is still trying to contain one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the coronavirus while also convulsed by a reckoning over racial injustice that roused the campaigning passion and anger of Premier League players following the death of George Floyd.
The text “Black Lives Matter” replaced player names on jerseys during Manchester City’s 3-0 victory over Arsenal and Aston Villa’s 0-0 draw with Sheffield United. The symbolic move that will continue in this weekend’s round of games is being accompanied by demands from players for substantive changes to end discrimination and promote diversity.
After the opening whistle blew in the first game at Villa Park, every player took a knee in a tribute to Floyd, who was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis last month. In Manchester, the same gesture took place just before kickoff in a near-empty stadium.
“Obviously it is going to be an odd experience without fans,” Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said. “The Premier League won’t be back with a capital ‘B’ until fans are back.”
Supporters won’t be allowed into stadiums for the coming weeks at least.
“There’s no doubt that this is a hugely symbolic moment,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said about the restart at the government’s daily briefing an hour before the games, “an important step forward in our careful journey back towards normality.”
The resumption of the Premier League comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government faces criticism for not ordering a nationwide lockdown until March 23 and for easing restrictions in England too soon given still-high levels of new cases and deaths. The United Kingdom as a whole has recorded more than 42,000 coronavirus-related deaths.
The virus had been rapidly spreading from Italy and Spain to the rest of Europe in March but it took a decision by the Premier League itself – after Arteta’s positive test – to halt the competition. The move, which came after the government had said sports competitions could go on, has been credited with saving lives by keeping hundreds of thousands of fans from being infected in, or around, stadiums.
As well as a Black Lives Matter logo, Premier League jerseys for the rest of the season will feature a badge thanking Britain’s National Health Service.
The latest example of the league’s clout came this weekend when 22-year-old star Marcus Rashford publicly demanded that Johnson’s government reverse its decision to halt school lunch vouchers for poor students over the summer holidays. The Manchester United and England player cited his own childhood experience of relying on free school lunches and food banks.
His campaign to protect hungry children drew wide support, prompting Johnson to make an abrupt policy U-turn on Monday and continue the vouchers. Johnson then called Rashford to thank him.
After the announcement Rashford tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
During the lockdown and with the resumption of the season in doubt, the league had feared it could lose more than US$1-billion for failing to meet broadcasting commitments.
Of the five biggest soccer countries in Europe, England is the fourth to get back on the field. Germany was first last month, while Spain and Italy resumed this month. France cancelled the remainder of its season while the virus was still peaking – as did England’s neighbour, Scotland.
The Premier League plans to finish the remaining 92 games of its season by July 26. There are also contingency plans for what to do if a second wave of infections that causes another shutdown but not about how to resolve an incomplete season.
Once all the national leagues are done, the country’s beloved FA Cup final will be held on Aug. 1. The Champions League is expected to finish its season in an abbreviated tournament-style finish in Lisbon in mid-August.