IT HAS been a year now since big crowds were allowed inside football stadiums. A whole 12 months and the likelihood is that 2020-21 will be a complete “behind closed doors” campaign. The world’s most popular pastime had been consigned to a TV experience lacking in atmosphere. We’ve actually got used to a game played with the equivalent of canned laughter.
Have some people grown out of the habit? There is a risk that some people who have been exiled from their favourite stadium may decide they can do without the risk or cost of football. Like many things in life that become addictive, when there is a prolonged absence, the need can disappear.
Even a fully vaccinated nation may not be enough to entice people back to stadiums. Older folk, in particular, may decide that being in a 25,000 crowd is too much of a gamble. It will surely take a while for people to realise the risk should have been mitigated by mass vaccination.
It’s not just the arena itself that poses a risk. Public transport is another problem, the prospect of packed buses, trains and underground railway all challenge the concept of safe travel and safe distancing.
One way to help make the spectator experience more comfortable would be to reduce crowd capacities for a limited period. This won’t solve the financial squeeze that will be coming in 2021-22, but it will assist in the transition phase that will be needed. Whatever happens next, sports fans will have to become familiar with a more reserved way of human interaction. We may need a little more space between us – after all, we have had 12 months of virtual isolation, it will feel strange to be in crowds once more. It is feasible that some people have not have touched another person in that timeframe.
We may have to hang on to masks. A packed crowd, celebrating a goal, creates a petri-dish of bacteria and body fluids, and the spectators sit and stew in this pot-pourri of potential infection.
On the other hand, people may be so starved of live football action there could be a stampede towards the turnstiles. This football fever may only apply to younger fans as the most vulnerable demographic may decide to wait and see and only tentatively return to the stadiums. It’s not out of the question that we may have seen the end of the attendance boom for the time being.
There’s no doubt, however, the pandemic has damaged football and the momentum that has built up over 20 years. But this crisis represents the biggest threat to society since the second world war. Year after year, at events like the World Economic Forum in Davos, experts have spoken about the destabilising effect of a pandemic. Only now do we realise how damaging contagion can be. Given mass gatherings represent the easiest way to infect people, football has to continue to exercise caution.
It would be logical, in these circumstances, to restrict movement of fans around the country. It simply doesn’t make sense to tempt fate by allowing thousands of people to travel to a football match.
Why should we be cautious? It would be foolish to lift the barriers too early and risk having to close them again. We have to remember that ignoring the restrictions to celebrate football success was one of the most infuriating events during lockdown. The return to normal has to be a gradual, softly-softly approach to ensure there will be no backtracking, no fourth lockdown, no drama. Let’s have the real drama on the football pitch.