IN SOME countries, there is a limited away-fan culture and visiting supporters are often in small numbers when they do turn up. Just look at some Spanish and Italian games and see if you can identify the small band of flag-wavers penned into a miniscule section high in the stadium, often outnumbered by burly stewards in bright yellow jackets.
In Britain, away support seems to have grown significantly in recent years. Despite the nation’s sub-optimal infrastructure and the relatively high cost of train travel, there seems to be more fans from the away club than ever before. It’s part of most matchdays to have a vocal input from the opposition, in fact they often make more noise than the home crowd. It may not be as novel as the days when the Sunday Times reported (FA Cup final day, early 1900s) that “it is a diversion to the southerner to hear the Northman’s dialect”, but it is good to hear folk from another part of the country.
But with the Coronavirus pandemic, and the suspension of all sport, we could be faced with transformational changes to the football experience, if and when normal service is resumed. These changes could, feasibly, include the banning of away supporters, not because of crowd trouble concerns, but in order to restrict the transmission and momentum of disease.
Think about it – a couple of thousand fans travelling from a city like Manchester or Liverpool to London, East Anglia or the deep south. By the law of averages, somebody will be carrying the infection. If one person has the potential to infect almost 60,000 people, there’s a big risk in allowing the movement of such a large body of potential carriers.
Basically, once the current situation improves, it will not mean the all-clear siren has been sounded. It will surely just mean it has calmed down. Therefore, substantial mobilisation of supporters will hardly be an appropriate way to respond to the lights going on again in England. There should be and will be restrictions.
Football fans can claim a ban on away travel will not stop them seein their team, but this would not be an act of defiance, it would be flirting with disaster. And if, socially, the virus becomes ingrained in the annual cycle of coughs and sneezes, vaccinations may soon become a regular part of everyone’s healthcare precautions. Some social commentators have suggested the virus is going to change so many aspects of our lives – interaction, work, hygiene (Britain is way behind some nations in basic sanitation. Football matches are a case in point, just visit the toilets!), food imports and economic diversification. The willingness to gather in large numbers may also be a thing of the past. Festivals, sporting events, concerts, public transport and even a trip to the supermarket suddenly contain the threat of potential infection. In the circumstances, football cannot hope to fill the role it played just a few weeks ago. Whether we like it or not, we should hope for and demand smaller crowds, more space, more humane public transport (no cattle truck train journeys) and greater hygiene at public events. Contrary to what Bill Shankly said, football is not more important than life and death, but taking a precautionary approach to watching the game can indeed be as important as life and death. We will, in time, get used to this, especially if we are directly impacted by the fatality statistics.