Football stadium at night / JWS

The Football Association is under fire mere days after the second half of the season began due to lack of communication and consistency surrounding COVID-19 protocols. The FA is now facing quite a bit of criticism, and clubs and fans are awaiting answers.

It started when Arsenal confirmed that one of their players had tested positive for COVID-19 after three of their players took a trip to Dubai, UAE during the holiday break. According to the club, they were not aware that their players were traveling. Still, after an investigation by the club, Arsenal concluded that the trip was made for ‘business’ reasons, which means that the players will face no punishment.

Manchester City face similar problems as four of their players who also decided to take a trip to Dubai contacted COVID-19. Unlike Arsenal, the players apparently did inform the club prior to traveling. The club sanctioned the trip because at the time Manchester was a Tier 3 zone (Very High Alert zone), not a Tier 4 zone (Stay at Home zone).

Because of these turn of events, both Arsenal and Manchester City requested from the FA that they postpone their upcoming fixtures against Aston Villa and West Ham respectively, with City also asking their tie against Chelsea in the FAWSL League Cup be delayed as well. Both clubs informed the FA that they would be unable to field 14 players since they have players who did not travel isolating as a precaution.

According to The Times, more than ten players from the WSL (including the seven from Manchester City and Arsenal) travelled to Dubai for a holiday. Manchester United’s manager, Casey Stoney, confirmed that players from her team were permitted to go on the trip, but apologized for allowing them to travel.

The FA postponed Arsenal’s match against Aston Villa (despite Villa appealing the decision for the game to be called off — they now have had three games postponed due to COVID) as well as Manchester City’s two matches against Chelsea and West Ham. They’ve also postponed Manchester United’s match against Everton due to Everton not being able to field 14 players because of positive COVID tests and an abundance of injuries. This makes it all the more confusing when manager Willie Kirk confirmed that all of Everton’s latest round of testing came back negative.

That being said, the FA has appeared wildly inconsistent, with Birmingham City’s request to postpone their match against Tottenham this Sunday because they only have ten match-fit players denied.

Birmingham have one positive case, the same as Arsenal, but because they have a smaller squad than other teams, and are suffering an injury crisis, they are unable to even field a starting XI. Despite the FA denying the request, the match was called off, and the outcome of it will be determined by an independent tribunal.

Yes, Birmingham having a smaller squad is not the FA’s fault, but the club does not have the funds to strengthen its ranks like some of its counterparts in the league. And now they’re being punished for it, as the FA will not be rescheduling the fixture. The decision is hardly consistent with the decision made for the Manchester United vs Everton fixture given that Everton’s situation is not dissimilar to Birmingham’s.

With all these postponements, many are wondering why Birmingham have not been given the same courtesy, and why this situation was not handled the same back in November when Bristol City had five players test positive for COVID. The FA also denied their request to postpone the match, and Bristol were forced to play several academy players in their 8-1 loss against Manchester City.

Bristol have asked the FA for clarification about their rulings regarding what qualifies an outbreak within a club as early in the season; the FA informed clubs that if a team were unable to field a squad of 14 players, they would be granted permission to postpone the match — a luxury that Bristol City were denied in November. Their manager, Tanya Oxtoby, reiterated that she was not pleased, stating that the club “asked for clarification from the FA around the 14 player rule and what that looks like because we were given 90 minutes to find our players before we had to travel up to Manchester City [back in November]. The timing of the [FA’s] announcement and the amount of time clubs would have had to find 14 players from academies, have them registered and tested probably is the bit we’re looking for clarification on.”

Oxtoby has every right to feel frustrated when the FA refuses to be transparent about why “bigger’ clubs are getting special treatment, especially since the clubs getting favour had players who acted incredibly irresponsibly by travelling over the break. Although Arsenal claim that the trip was for “business”, that’s hard to believe, given that the players’ job, the “business” they should actually be handling, requires they are healthy and available for matches in the UK. Not to mention, several players posted pictures on Instagram of beaches and parties during their time in Dubai.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that clubs who only had a few players go to Dubai are not able to field a squad of 14. It then becomes a question as to whether the clubs just do not want to play the match without their best players. With the clubs having an out by the FA postponing matches rather than making the clubs forfeit and awarding the opponents with the win, and both the FA and the clubs letting off their players for acting irresponsible, Oxtoby is right to call out the apparent favoritism.

And she’s not the only one. After the FA’s decision, fans and reporters took to Twitter to voice their frustrations, using the hashtag #DubaiGate to criticize those who travelled.

Several FAWSL players also took to Twitter to voice their frustration with the decisions. Chelsea players Fran Kirby, Bethany England, and Carly Telford were clearly agitated with their match against City being postponed, with Kirby highlighting that their already packed schedule will give the FA little room to fit the game in down the line.

Reading’s Emma Mitchell was a bit more direct in voicing her frustrations on Twitter, tagging the FA directly regarding the Arsenal match being postponed came out. West Ham’s Gilly Flaherty stated that women footballers had worked too hard to be recognized as professionals to throw it away by not remaining humble.

The FA needs to step up and communicate to clubs and players what the proper procedure is for all teams, ensuring that the rule is applied equally to all.

And there needs to come a point where these clubs, regardless of how big they are or how successful they’ve been in the past, must be punished with points and wins being awarded to their opponents if they continue to act irresponsibly while failing to foresee to see the consequences of their actions.