Can football come home without the fans?

Tim Ellis May 25, 2020
Can football come home without the fans?

When foreign secretary Dominic Raab mumbled something about football lifting the spirits of the nation, it was difficult to suppress a yawn.

‘Project Restart’, the term assigned to relaunching the football season, already sounds like a painfully political cut-and-paste phrase.

Former England coach Gareth Southgate once famously remarked on Sven-Goran Eriksson’s motivational techniques during a crucial World Cup game against Brazil: “We needed Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith.”

The daily covid press conferences have been as riveting as IDS – or IBS. That is until Boris turned up on Sunday looking like he had just woken up.

Historically, governments have always tried to use football or sport for political capital, whipping up the electorate’s patriotic sensibilities.

At the moment, it seems the Conservatives couldn’t sell an ice cream without falling off the pier.

Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Millions yearn for football return

When life drifts by like tumbleweed in our new society of less manic Mondays, ‘Project Restart’ appears to be a sound way to calm the mental blocks.

Millions of us mark our week through the football prism. At the end of the working week, going to the match has become a way of life. Without it, life is incomplete.

Sport is now playing a game of “where’s Boris?” or wondering whether Dominic Cummings’ unsponsored London to Durham trip(s) featured pit stops.

Football clearly carries a resonance outside its corporate soul. Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish has been particularly vocal in defending its sovereignty.

“Football is just another industry trying to get back to work. It doesn’t have any more right to do so than construction or retail but nor does it have any less.”

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Parish suggests football is held to a higher account in terms of its moral and social responsibility than other sectors. And he has a point. Hancock was quick to jump on footballers saying they should give something to the NHS.

He wasn’t so insistent on other high-earners who lacked shirt numbers on their backs.

There are significant teething problems to ‘Project Restart’. Despite everyone’s best efforts, football will be like an awkward relative after a grief-stricken period.

Think Dan Walker in that BBC trailer: “Sport will return – whether you like it or not.” It hits the wrong tone – or perhaps it’s just the sight of Dan.

Do fans believe in ‘Project Restart’?

The value of the product is particularly important in the Premier League. Fans need to believe in what they are seeing. When the Bundesliga re-entered the earth’s atmosphere last weekend, the beginning of the Dortmund-Schalke match had the ambience of a training session.

The Yellow Wall of noise had been replaced by industrial emptiness. After Dortmund scored, we heard polite, cricket-style applause.

Players were told not to swear. When Hertha Berlin players forgot to socially distance after a goal, it was good to see human behaviour fight back even just for a second.

Photo by Thomas Kienzle/Pool via Getty Images

Football’s silence isn’t so golden 

This is new territory without any of the razzmatazz or sense of jeopardy that feeds our tribal instincts before a match.

The prerequisite of any football drama is the soundtrack from fans or anthems.

Think of You’ll Never Walk Alone, in essence the last piece of football singing before lock-down was announced in England.

Jurgen Klopp didn’t exactly look thrilled to elbow bump his opposite number Diego Simeone. This was a glimpse into a new world where every interaction will be viewed with even more scrutiny.

Then there’s the stark reminder footballers, apart from those extra 000s, have worries just like us. Pay packets can’t protect against pandemics. Troy Deeney and N’Golo Kante have dipped out of training for personal safety and family reasons. Sergio Aguero has expressed disquiet.

Coronavirus is still making its way around teams from Dresden to Bournemouth. Workspaces are different. Team bonding isn’t physical.

Eventually, football will have to learn how to live with the virus. Can the public make the mental adjustment after craving for its return without the sense of thrill?

This could be a long hot summer with sport in sanitised form.

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