Aidan Smith: How can 40,000 footballers be tested for coronavirus before every single carehome worker?
We’ll all be German soon, they’re saying. The country’s famed efficiency in coping better than most with Covid-19 is bringing football back quicker than anywhere else. And just when you were thinking about cancelling that BT Sport subscription – or rather attempting to cancel and ending up stuck in a phone queue for days on end – you remember that the network has the rights to the Bundesliga. This is the only show in town, in der stadt, so you might as well watch.
Well, it will be interesting. We will be able to see what football without fans is really like. Some of the German clubs are going to be filling their stands with cardboard cutouts. At Borussia Monchengladbach, for £17, supporters get to have cutouts of themselves, sat or standing in their normal place, cheering for their team one-dimensionally in spirit.
Imagine fan-banished football here and your club offering this facility: which facial expression would you choose? Remember it will be permanent and cannot alter with the ebb and flow of the game. A Celtic fan posing for the cameras in the club shop where his likeness would be readied is likely to present a whole different countenance to the world from that of a Hearts fan. It would be the difference between Odsonne Edouard and Edvard Munch, between exultation and The Scream.
But really, are we ready for matches behind closed doors? There was a moment a few weeks ago when it seemed like we were. Now I’m not so sure …
A few weeks ago we would have taken any football going. We tuned into Belarus where they were carrying on regardless. I thought back to Derek Johnstone’s story, recounted for the 40th anniversary of the 1978 World Cup, about the Scotland players betting on which fly would be first to crawl to the top of the empty swimming pool at their grim Argentinian hotel. This was the nation’s football public now, I reckoned. We were that fed up and that desperate.
But the attitude has changed. Games without fans would be fine, we told ourselves, as long as we could still watch them on TV. Any port in a storm, any football in a pandemic. There would be a novelty aspect, and a certain amount of intrigue into how the players would handle them. And the big issues of titles and cups, promotion and relegation would be settled once and for all out on the pitch. Wasn’t that what we all wanted?
The attitude has changed for a number of reasons. One of them is that it already feels like we’ve been talking about behind-closed-doors forever and we’re beginning to bore ourselves. The coronavirus has an extremely nasty habit of smothering and stultifying and stopping things dead in their tracks, including lives. All we can do is talk; action is much more tricky.
Another reason is that the longer we remain in the grip of Covid-19, the more this unfinished season will crash into the next one. Or not. This season may yet be scrapped. And next season may have to happen without fans. This was a front-page headline two days ago. What were we calling behind-closed-doors before – a novelty? My team have sold 5,000 season tickets for a campaign the faithful might not even get to see.
Here’s another reason: should football even be on the front page when so many are still dying? The longer the pandemic haunts us the more inappropriate and potentially cringe-inducing a debate about the game will seem. Ethically, the return of football in such circumstances would not be such a good look. Of course the drum has been thumped for the return of football to “lift the national mood”. Some of those doing the banging have been politicians, a breed most fans view with the highest suspicion. The political classes like to exploit the game’s appeal to try and endear themselves to the common man. The common man spots this a mile off.
And yet wasn’t it Health Secretary Matt Hancock, inset – a football man if the Newcastle United shirt hanging in his study is any guide – who criticised millionaire players for their apparent reluctance to offer help in the crisis? Suddenly he or those like him need footballers to get back out there and play. That suspicion has just been cranked up some more because you don’t have to be especially cynical to wonder if the return of football, even in empty stadiums, isn’t more about deflecting attention from the government’s mistakes during the pandemic than it is about cheering up a large section of the population.
There’s being over-involved in the football debate and there’s being under-involved. At risk of contradiction, why doesn’t our First Minister have anything but glib words to say about the game in Scotland and – lacking England’s vast TV riches – its current parlous state? Nicola Sturgeon may not have much personal interest in football but some empathy and understanding for those whose livelihoods – and, yes, reason for being – depend on it wouldn’t go amiss.
Those riches are another reason why the argument for the resumption of football – which has to be behind closed doors – is proving more difficult to sustain. If initially you didn’t know that, in England at least, this is all about money – and the £750 million the game there could forfeit if TV contracts aren’t honoured – then as the debate has dragged you must surely be aware now.
Yesterday it emerged that 40,000 tests would be required before football in England could be restarted. That’s a delicate figure – in order to reach their target of 100,000 tests, the government fired out 40,000 by post, although their critics claimed these shouldn’t have counted as assessment hadn’t been concluded on any of them. But why should footballers be tested before, say, every single carehome worker? Already some clubs have said they’d be uncomfortable about this, their concerns coming on top of Sergio Aguero’s remarks that he’d be “scared” to return to playing.
Finally, behind-closed-doors football won’t work because it will be cardboard fans watching plastic games. Even Jambos would want to be there, shouting for and at their team.
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