The lockdown, due to the pandemic, has brought about the true sentiment behind the well-known axiom, ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’. While people are subconsciously aware of life and its sudden and frail nature, the virus has seemingly brought these feelings of trepidation to reality. People from all walks of life are duly missing something or the other, which somewhat completed their life.
As for football fans, the game is considered by most to be a deeply-rooted ritual in their existence. It is something they look forward to, week-in and week-out. The amount of anticipation that goes into a particular match can be nerve-wracking, yet they love it because the joy derived from is inexplicable. Despondencies are turned into jubilations, losers fight back to become winners and underdogs become favourites. The suspension of football across the globe had left its fans disheartened; for there can never be a competent enough substitute for the sport which spews out narratives like any other.
After more than two months, football resumed in Germany on May 16th. Broadcasting conglomerate Sky Sports announced free-to-air television without pay-tv subscriptions in Germany to avert gatherings of large sections of crowds. The hype around it in Germany and all over the world brought back something that fans had been devoid of for so many months. Although something about it didn’t feel normal, which raises the question as to what is normal?
Well, normal is when things take place in a manner one expects them to. All these years, fans have developed a tradition associated with match days. However, courtesy of the way football has returned, they haven’t been able to go about their business.
Speaking on the return of football without fans, England legend Gary Lineker exclaimed, “Well, it is not quite the same. I imagine after a few games they’ll (fans) get used to it. But even watching football on television … is very much different if you’ve not got the crowd.”
Much before the actual kick-off, local pubs are flooded with eager and excited fans. They would sit there and discuss pre-match opinions while getting tipsy over a couple of beers. Later on, nearing the kick-off time, many of them would exuberantly sing and march towards the stadium. Once inside, they make the stadium reverberate by chanting at the top of their voice. And that’s how a typical match day program shapes up.
Over the years, this has become a routine, and many of them were raised into it. Repeating it game after the game has given birth to the feeling of normal. They have become accustomed to it, and the return of football without fans has inhibited it. But people often overlook the fact that normal is a feeling, and like all other feelings it’s subjective. What may not feel normal today may feel normal, say after a month or a year. Things keep on changing, so it’s about accepting them the way they are.
Perhaps the new normal is more unsettling for the players rather than the fans. Even though matches have been taking place as usual with the home and away system, home advantage hasn’t been there. Teams are playing in their home stadiums, but what makes it home is the presence of supporters, who are constantly behind them. Instead of being treated to fans chanting their name, they have been left listening to echoes of their voice. They are playing in familiar territory, yet it must feel like an alien land.
Furthermore, the role played by home fans in uplifting the fallen spirits of the players can’t be overlooked. A push from them makes players give their all to earn one extra point and keep in mind – this extra point has the potential to determine the future of the club. That’s how significant fans are to the players and clubs, especially for those fighting the relegation battle!
In an interview with The Athletic, Arsene Wenger explained the importance of home fans. He said, “In Germany, for example, you can see that in home games against bigger opponents, there is an element missing — that tension, that belief, that motivation that is coming from outside the pitch. You see that the internal motivation of the club is not big enough against the big clubs. The bigger teams have more quality, so a way to reduce the difference between the teams is, of course, to have the support of your fans and get that intensity into the game.”
It’s not just the fans which players are missing; hugging, and passionate post-goal celebrations are also restricted. Now, football is a contact sport, and as soon as the referee blows his whistle, social distancing norms go straight to the bin. One argument could be that this is to avoid direct contact, but what difference does it make? Direct contact or not, players are still tackling, marking, and sharing a dressing room.
As they say, drastic times call for drastic measures. The way football has returned doesn’t feel normal, but it has at least put a smile on the faces of people. The sheer joy derived from seeing their favourite player kick about goes a long way in improving mental health. As to the not normal feelings, time is what’s needed to adjust to this new brand of football, and it will feel eventually feel normal.
The restart of football has come as a ray of hope for the general public, for football is a mirror reflection of the society. It has made them believe things can return to usual. In an interview to Real Madrid TV, Casemiro exclaimed, “It’s a significant step, not just for football but for society too, to show people that it (return to normal) is possible,”
If the rumours floating around are to be believed, then fans can be back at the stadium as early as the FA Cup final which is scheduled for August 1st. According to it, plans for allowing a maximum of 10,000 fans from each side are being discussed.
The best thing that could happen to football right now is the reintroduction of fans. They are the soul of any sport, and without them, everything feels empty. Virtual reality is being heavily discussed on the internet of late. It can be seriously helpful for some people. Nevertheless, it would never be able to replace the atmosphere created by fans inside the stadium. Let’s pray that VR is not the future, and football comes back to normal!
Written by Amogh Jain | Feature image by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images
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