FOOTBALL’s enforced absence may seem trivial compared to the losses and suffering endured by people at the sharp end of the pandemic, but the crisis has the potential to transform the industry and leave it compromised by a wave of economic destruction.
If it was just about the financial damage, then the game undoubtedly has the power, popularity and eco-system to stage a recovery. However, the real cost of the Coronavirus could create a very different game in terms of spectator behaviour and the business models of clubs.
People are at their most vulnerable from threat when they are gathered in crowds, making them easy targets for terrorism, aerial attack, bacteria and civil disturbance. Crowds in confined spaces are the worst places to avoid infection and ideal places for contagion to take root. A crowd of 20,000 people pressed into an area no bigger than a big office complex or housing estate, can be lethal in circulating disease.
This is the sort of story that provides film-makers with a guaranteed audience. An outbreak of a rare or unknown disease, an ignored scientist who has warned for years of the menace and the consequences of meddling around in labs, a hero (usually American, usually with issues) and a bit of love interest thrown in. We usually watch in a state of mild horror, but the current situation is rapidly becoming our own sci-fi production. A vaccine will arrive at some point and life will go on, but our confidence in modern-day medicine will have been shaken.
Confidence will be at the root of the recovery mode and whether fans return to football matches with gusto. Look how quickly the country has gone from business as usual to tumbleweed junction: mass shutdowns, economic statistics plummeting and everything grinding to a halt. Our streets are deserted, goats are coming down from the hills believing the human race has disappeared and the skies are empty. Those that live around airports cannot believe the roaring silence – the biggest things in the air at the moment are birds of prey who also cannot figure out why the volume switch has suddenly been turned off. They are actually flying lower in curiosity. Neighbours of football clubs have surely missed the fortnightly glow in the evening sky that – if you live close enough – enables you to turn off your lights and bask in the glow of a bank of floodlights.
When the all-clear is sounded (well, we are comparing it to wartime even though there’s scarcely a man or woman who now remembers WW2), will it signal a stampede back to the ways we took for granted for so long? Will we pack-out football stadiums, for example, greeting our season ticket neighbours like long lost pals? Does the prospect of cramming onto a tube train, experiencing the alcohol and nicotine-tinged breath of fans up close, seem as attractive as it once did? In our sanitised, toilet roll-free homes, will we have become comforted by antiseptic environments and frightened out of our skins by the continual news bulletins and alarming statistics? And do we want to sit, buttock-by-buttock with the man whose dry cough and troubled brow just might indicate he is carrying something that is going to lay you up for a fortnight in bed? Will we want to eat and drink in a stadium that has so many “hot spots” when it comes to infection? Furthermore, the stadium toilets, although a marked improvement on the 1970s and 1980s, are still a pot pourri of bacteria and stale urine.
All joking aside, we may find that our willingness to go through the old football experience may have been diminished by the Coronavirus, that we will want to adopt a more hygenic approach to everyday life and also keep our distance. The age of hugging and kissing, tactile relationships and group eating may, for the time being, become passe.
Where does this leave football? The communal element of the game has always been one of its crucial selling points. Being part of something and expressing satisfaction, grief, frustration and ecstasy has long defined what the fan is all about. This could have been severely damaged but hopefully not eradicated by the virus. If we become hung-up on social distancing beyond the virus, and it is a possibility because who will wave the flag that says it is safe to go back into the water once more?, the whole concept of a large crowd watching sport will be under threat.
It may take time, longer than some clubs may have as the crisis decimates their balance sheets, but football has to accept that the audience returning to the game post-virus may not have the same level of tolerance or appetite for standing cheek-by-jowl with fellow sufferers. The answer could be to restrict crowd numbers, but if this is a extended or even permanent change of habit, then football could have a huge, possibly insurmountable problem ahead of it. Implementing social distancing at a football ground could mean cutting attendances by two thirds, a draconian measure that may kill clubs who have a substantial reliance on gate money.
On the other hand, perhaps nothing will happen and the crowds will flock back, more enthused than ever. Will government officials, football administrators and the clubs be happy to say that the doors are open and everything is fine? In this age of mass communication, litigation culture, career politics and social media dissection, it would seem unlikely.