FOOTBALL fans the world over are like junkies in cold turkey at the moment. The sport that helps define their very existence has been put in storage: stadiums are deserted, tumbleweed is blowing around the streets surrounding Anfield, Craven Cottage, Brisbane Road and the rest of the 91 homes of football. At the moment, it feels as though the very fabric of daily life has been disrupted beyond acceptability, even though it has barely been a fortnight since the neurosis button was well and truly pressed in Britain.
It is clear that attempts will be made to complete the 2019-20 season, even if it extends into summer. The European Championships have made way for domestic club football, which underlines, to some extent, that people recognise clubs are more vital than national teams. At some point, governments will come to the conclusion football has a part to play in lifting and maintaining morale, but nobody will want to take any risks.
Ups and downs
The English Football League can say all it likes that it will finish the season, but without government permission, mass gatherings of up to 75,000 people will be absolutely verboten. Football will not be at the top of the list in restoring order.
The decision on how to finish the campaigns cannot be driven by the clubs, either. Promotion-chasing Leeds United, for example, made sure they got their view across in the media, with the Financial Times giving space to Angus Kinnear who insisted the season should be played-out, either in front of fans or behind closed gates. He may have been right that “promotion and relegation are sacrosanct”, but would he have said that if Leeds were in 19th place in the Championship? It is doubtful. Would West Ham’s Karren Brady have called for the campaign to be abandoned if the Hammers were challenging for the Champions League? Unlikely.
There are more essential aspects of daily life that need to be sorted-out ahead of football. Millions of school children are having their examinations disrupted, a very worrying aspect of the crisis given education has clearly been sadly lacking among many of Britain’s food-hoarders in the past week or two. Whatever happened to the bull dog spirit that was supposed to epitomise British pluck? It has become the pit bull spirit if you look around the nation’s supermarkets.
In order to calm people, however, getting football back on stage would be a massive signal that life goes on. We have a population about to be locked-in at home, unable to socialise, or travel, worried about food supplies and sitting watching financial markets implode. To cap it all, social media amplifies anxiety tenfold. We are told to be patient in an age when instant gratification is the narrative for many people, hence we expect automatic solutions.
Given football’s place in society, the government could score (no pun intended) a goal or two by implementing some measures for allowing football to continue in some shape or form. Not yet, of course, but after a few weeks off, allowing clubs to introduce some measures to mitigate risk.
If social distancing is one answer, then why not reopen stadiums with reduced, more manageable and space-sensitive capacities? This would require a complex logistical exercise that would be labour intensive, especially with so many season ticket holders at some clubs, but at the moment, they have the time to start thinking about how to allocate spaces. Try using all those data engineers that have sprung up over the past decade!
For example, at Fulham, where I have a season ticket, they could reduce their capacity from 18,000 to 9,000 and Chelsea could cut theirs from 40,000 to 20,000. Some grounds won’t need much in the way of adjustment and even with a smaller crowd, many fans will choose not to return until they are completely satisfied that it is safe to do so.
Other measures such as staggered entrance or exit, to limit crowds, could be introduced to provide more distance between spectators. If you really want to get clinical, you could bring in the sort of temperature barriers that operate at Tokyo’s main airports and prevent access to those who are or are about to be sick.
Surgical masks are supposed to be pointless, but surely they would limit the amount of saliva, mucous and germs that can pass from one person to another in a stadium, especially when fans leap to their feet and roar their delight at a goal? The Japanese have had surgical masks as part of their healthcare regime for decades, as soon as someone coughs or sneezes, the next day they invariably don a mask for their journey to work. If nothing else, these masks make people feel they are taking control of the situation themselves, and the value of that cannot be overstated.
If younger people are less vulnerable, then perhaps, temporarily, older folk should be encouraged to stay away from stadiums? Admittedly, given I am over 60, I would be considered on the riskier list, but hey, that’s life.
And that’s what football represents for many people – it is an essential part of their lives. The reason the game has survived and come through war, depressions, political unrest and social upheaval is that it appeals to some of the basic emotional and physical needs of the human condition – pleasure, pain, expectation, rivalry, shared enjoyment and a cause for celebration.
Governments have, too often – notably the Thatcher administration – ignored the role played by football in entertaining, distracting and embossing the lives of the common man. Some have seen football as a useful tool to ingratiate themselves with the masses.
That’s not to say the climate hasn’t got to be right for football to return in the weeks or months ahead, and of course, the safety of fans has to be paramount, but as soon as the coast is clear, a cautious game can take on a key role in lifting the gloom that has descended upon Britain and other countries in 2020. It would be a psychological boost if we knew the wheels had not come completely off the wagon. Personally, I’m still not convinced football will resume until the 2020-21 season.