LONDON (AP) – What have I learned about pandemic football – I mean football of course – since returning to England?
You watch soulless matches without fans out of rooted habit – and the misplaced hope that kills you. Your team implodes, even out of deep-seated habit. All in all an extra unpleasant feeling in difficult times.
But let’s rewind.
On the whole, sports during the pandemic are only a matter of life or death if players, staff or fans become infected. Perhaps an updated rendition of Karl Marx’s famous quote: has sport become “the opium of the people”?
In Britain, where I live, some in the political arena ventured that the return of professional football without fans on seats called Project Restart would lift national morale. Discussable.
It is a passionate game whose fans are the lifeblood. This applies throughout Europe and beyond.
Supporters, often dressed in team colors, are a breathing, heaving, screaming crowd – living every moment, every decision, with joyful bursts or howls of derision. Chants full of industrial language encourage hero worship at best and, at worst, the depths of downright racism and xenophobia.
Watching the English Premier League on return was no excitement to me – a rather bizarre feeling after following my London team, Arsenal, domestically and abroad for decades.
So far, the team has not played a ‘home’ game that I would normally attend. Watching other empty stadiums brought with it a decision: the choice of the fake audiosphere the channels generate.
No thank you. This applies to traces of laughter, lip sync and ghostwriting. So it’s a natural sound to me – the thrill of players, coaches and the ball being kicked and headed.
My team lost the first two games I saw. Once, against a superior team, barely registered on the anger scale. The second, against an inferior one, was ranked due to a long-term injury to our goalkeeper due to unnecessary foul play by an opponent who then rubbed salt into the wound by scoring the winning goal in the last seconds.
But it passed quickly, faster than ever in the past.
A close friend and colleague who has also supported Arsenal all his life felt the same watching live from New York in our hyper-connected world. We WhatsApp-ed, and continued with the rest of our weekends.
The same friend and I had attended a game that we still remember, where a winning goal, a penalty deep in injury time, sent my driving lunatics, including us, and seemed to remove the roof.
Those are the pleasures. Comradeship with several people with whom I have been a subscriber for more than a quarter of a century. The pre-match rituals, the pub for a few losers (or not, in case my teenage son, who has left the game in recent years, accompanies me – a rare treat).
Then a win on Thursday – yet look bleak.
I will continue to watch the matches every few days as the competition races to complete the interrupted season. But let’s not kid ourselves: Like so much else, this was a financial decision as lockdowns are eased around the world to revive flatlining’s economy. Hundreds of millions in different currencies are at stake for the monstrous brand of money cows; worldwide TV rights are at stake.
But the first “home game” of the pandemic during the remainder of this week’s season will feel particularly soulless to see the fans taken away from me. And I can’t even fathom when it stops being madness to attend another event with some 60,000 other people.
Strengthen memories. Perhaps Rick of Humphrey Bogart was right in “Casablanca”: “We will always …”
Virus Diary, an incidental feature, shows the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. See previous entries here. Follow Tamer Fakahany, AP’s Deputy Director of Global News Coordination, at http://twitter.com/tamerfakahany
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.