Gaby McKay asks what will come next for football – and if the game’s hold over millions of people around the world will be broken?
The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once famously declared ‘football is not a matter of life and death…it’s much more important than that.’
The Scotsman was obviously being facetious. Having grown up in a small Ayrshire mining town, stealing bread and vegetables from nearby farms due to the overwhelming hunger, Shankly was hardly unaware of the very real human suffering that puts the insignificance of 22 people kicking a ball around into perspective. It’s a reality that has now hit hard across the globe. With tens of thousands of people losing their lives, the decision to shut down major leagues across the planet seems not only correct, but of very little significance.
One day football will return – it’s already back under way in several nations – and it’s worth considering now just how it will look when those 22 are once again kicking a ball around, but how we’ll feel about the sport we all love now we’ve realised that it really isn’t a matter of life and death.
Will we find, perhaps, that we can’t really remember why we were so consumed by football in the first place? Of course we miss the game, and seeing players take to the pitch once again should provide a welcome distraction in what is now a very uncertain world.
It was significant to note that in Italy many ultras – the most fanatical and devoted of all fans – were set steadfastly against plans to resume Serie A. The same was true in Germany, while a poll in the Observer newspaper in the UK found only around one-third of football fans wanted games to resume immediately.
The most optimistic estimates say games will be behind closed doors until at least the beginning of 2021, meaning most fans won’t have stepped foot inside a stadium for the best part of a year. Of course many watch on television, but – as anyone who watched Serie A, the Champions League or the Europa League in early March will tell you – football without spectators is a strange, cold and bloodless thing. Can the sport retain its hold on our attentions when the only accompanying sounds will be the shouts of players and managers, the only sight outside the pitch empty seats or, worse, cardboard cut-outs of fans?
Having no actual football being played has laid bare the machinations that often go on behind the scenes, with the unedifying spectacle of clubs bickering over league positions and governing bodies scrambling for television money while hospitals are at breaking point and people are dying. Having gone cold turkey for months, how many of us will find our football addiction has been broken?
Maybe we can look to another legendary European Cup winning manager for guidance. Arrigo Sacchi, whose Milan side revolutionised the game as we know it, once described football as ‘the most important of the least important things in life.’ In the context of a global pandemic of course football pales into irrelevance – but that doesn’t mean it has no relevance.
In the end football is not just 22 men or women kicking a ball around a pitch. It’s discussing last night’s match with a parent over a coffee. It’s drinking a beer with your friends before walking to the stadium. It’s embracing strangers as the ball hits the back of the net, walking into a bar hundreds of miles from home and feeling you’re among your tribe, lending your voice to thousands of others to create a roar of primal emotion. Football isn’t life and death, it’s everything that comes in between. Love, joy, pain, pain, anger, boredom, excitement.
Perhaps rather than finding we never missed it, we’ll rediscover what made us fall in love with the game in the first place. One day, in 2021 or beyond, you’ll climb the steps at the stadium and see the brilliant green of the pitch as though it was the first time, or you’ll catch the eye of a regular at your favourite bar just before kick-off and something unspoken will pass between you. You’ll hear a whistle, the roar of a crowd. Then 22 people will kick a ball about and once again it’ll seem like the most important thing in the world.
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