Football has finally moved in to the twenty first century; its role as a mental health tool finally realised nee the game for the man’s man and the eighties hooligan reputation. A step forward to counter many previous ones backward for a sport that has long been a breeding ground for toxic masculinity.
In March, Coronavirus took most nations, and their respective football ladders, by storm simultaneously. Eight months on, the world finds itself in different boats, battling different waves but of the same stormy sea. Through the darkness of economic ruin and public confusion shines a new hope for how we tackle mental health, our shared experience the catalyst. If only the cause for celebration were greater.
As numbers surge in Europe, in what seems to be a prolonged first wave now peaking, what next for the game and for the many connected to it?
Last week a petition was launched in the UK to keep grassroots football going during the second lockdown, citing low transmission of the virus within junior sport, along with the mental health benefits of regular exercise.
On the surface it makes sense, but how are we in this position, where community sport continuing is up for debate.
In March, all competitive football stopped, at every level of the pyramid. There were fewer than 320 cases per day when that decision was taken. Today, there are almost 100 times that amount, yet the Premier League continues, creating a narrative for junior football to go on too.
Football is part of Britain’s fabric and in times of adversity it’s identity we cling too most, no different to the sacred Sunday roast, but at what cost? According to the British government the virus doesn’t spread before 10pm, or with a substantial meal (whatever that is) yet here the country is, heading in to a winter lockdown, less than eight weeks before Christmas.
This week came the apparent theory COVID doesn’t spread in male, professional changing rooms, training sessions and football matches, evident as the lower leagues of the women’s game are cancelled whilst their male counterparts go on.
Project restart was a compromised short terms solution. If that sacrifice earlier in the year of fans absent from stadiums was a step back for two forward, why does the country find itself worse off now than before?
As a dyed in the wool Mancunian, but an adopted (Aussie) Victorian, the mind boggles. A six week lockdown in Australia’s garden state soon became fifteen. Even now, as the state celebrates ten days of double donut days (the Melburnian term for having recorded no new cases, or deaths) football, is by no means back, and nor is any other contact sport for that matter.
What felt like an eternity of cautious overkill has worked - even it was safer all along to sit in a time and size regulated group in the beer garden, than it was to gather unmonitored, in unlimited groups in the park. No Victorian is clambering for contact sport to come back though, nor were they fighting for it when it was cancelled.
Perhaps there’s a compromise to be made; in increasing PE lessons at school or allowing clubs to train, in their isolated groups.
In recent weeks one footballer has done more to unite the country than Boris Johnson and his cabinet combined. Marcus Rashford is walking the walk on the pitch and talking the talk off it. It’s an example of how football can lead the way, and can go first. Rashford has inspired a nation to make sacrifices so no neighbour, no household, no kid is left behind without food on their plate.
The government’s handling of the virus has made the owners of Bury and Macclesfield look like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, but football has always had a choice through this pandemic. A choice to carry on or to stop. Before, a restart was made in the hope of either vaccine or eradication. Neither look any more likely today than back in July.
So why is football immune, especially if normality is now further away, and what sort of example is the top level of the game, a place our youth looks for it’s role models, setting? The only thing more common than a Paul Pogba hair cut seems to be another story doing the rounds; of friends of friends slipping through loop holes with more disguise and covertness than a Kevin De Bruyne daisy cutter.
These rule ending survival tactics feel necessary to stave off the social isolation and boredom of a lockdown, but collectively, do they do more damage than good? Have a look at data, the table never lies. In keeping football going, the debate has to factor in logistics; kids and families out of the house, travelling and creating more opportunity for the virus to spread.
The two wrongs, of school and universities being open, does not make playing on necessarily right, but if it is, why does this only apply to the top level of the game, where the most travel (and potential for spread) takes place.
In a previous article, citing the stiff upper lip of Britons, we have to consider another angle to the debate; the “it’ll be right attitude” alone won’t fix this one. It’s time to get behind the ball and defend because there’s a long way to go yet.