Football and the pandemic: Back in the grounds, maybe – but for how long?

IT still feels like something of a novelty at the moment, but the 2021-22 season has been quite enjoyable so far. It has been great to be back inside stadiums and experiencing a proper matchday atmosphere. But there is something of a darkening cloud on the horizon as we move out of autumn – government suits are on TV talking of a coming crisis concerning infection rates, deaths and precautionary measures. It’s time to rinse out those face masks and exercise some caution.

Covid-19 aside, we have been reminded that the football crowd has never been the land of milk and honey. The recent scenes in Budapest and Wembley were a throwback to the days when going to the match was laden with hurdles around personal safety. Despite the gesturing, PR campaigns and signalling, football remains a heady mix of tribal bonhomie, good-natured jousting, bad behaviour, foul language and, unfortunately, racism and bigotry.

Of course, we should not forget the Euro 2020 final, when we witnessed atrocious antics from fans making central London a playground for the drunk and disorderly. We should not pretend football life before covid-19 was perfect, but games were generally well policed, stewarded and administered. Britain made enormous progress in the late 1990s and into the 2000s around staging football and trouble was at a relatively low level. This environment dovetailed with the gentrification of the game, which certainly took a step backwards at Wembley in July 2021. It would be a great shame if all the good work of the past starts to unravel.

In decades gone by, following any outbreak of football hooliganism, there was invariably an overreaction, largely prompted by strong-arm shows of strength. This has changed significantly and the Police, among others, have far greater ability to know exactly what is going on before, during and after a game. At Wembley, the trouble should have been foreseen; you only had to look on the internet to see what was developing. Hopefully, this was an isolated event, although the fighting at the England versus Hungary game hints at a rising trend of disorder.

The pandemic has changed many things in our everyday lives and we are far from out of the woods. For all the rainbow drawings, clapping and good work done by volunteers, there are folk who seem to have adopted a “survival of the fittest” approach when it comes to food and fuel shortages. There’s also blatant disregard for precautionary measures among some groups, hence facemasks are almost totally absent from crowds and public gatherings and joyous celebrations are ignoring the concept of keeping safe. When it comes to the crunch, people will crawl over each other to gain an advantage… or some unleaded petrol!

Football stadiums are certainly more comfortable than they were in the past, but do we now have some psychological discomfort about being in a 30,000 crowd even though the chances of infection are lowered by being in the open air? Some of the animal spirits of the football crowd may need to be tempered as we move forward – cold weather is approaching and infection rates are rising once more. Britain will not easily deal with yet another lockdown, economically, mentally or physically.

If the pandemic recovery receives a major setback and is derailed, the government could be forced to take drastic steps once more. If that happens, football may find itself reduced to behind-closed-doors games again. The financial impact of this will be catastrophic for professional and semi-professional football in Britain, especially below the very top level. And this time, it may push some clubs over the edge.

Perhaps football should become more proactive in a bid to demonstrate it can act to head crisis off at the pass. Maybe insist on facemasks in some areas, reduce capacities to allow more breathing space and also more stringently control entrances and exits at grounds. If recent news is leading us towards a lockdown or lockdown-lite, football can play its part to ensure it keeps running. Instead of waiting for the government to shut it down, come up with an alternative that allows clubs to keep running, albeit at a reduced rate. Otherwise, it could be back to square one.

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