During the pandemic, most leisurely and cultural aspects of our society have been put on hold for the first time in many years. With the enforcement of lockdown in March this year, common place year-round events such as music concerts, theatre productions, festivals and sports matches became events of the past; falling under the category of ‘mass gatherings’. The thought of being in such a close proximity to a high number of other people became both unthinkable and undesirable. In lieu of these live events, reruns of popular theatre productions and music concerts were streamed to our homes, with a large proportion of people preferring this new way of living from the comfort of their own sofa. However, although it can be nice to reminisce, nothing could ever replace the feeling of adrenaline you get watching a live game alongside fellow fans.
It’s clear that the loss of watching a certain sport live hit a lot harder across the nation than many other events. Yes, football left an empty void in every household in some way shape or form. Since 1992, on a weekly basis the Premier League has been a huge part of people’s social lives and calendars. The Football Association has even said that “Supporters are the lifeblood of our national game, and that has been underlined by how much their absence has been felt over the last month,”. So, with life slowly returning to normal and shops, restaurants, pubs, cafés and gyms all reopening, it was only a matter of time until we found a way for football to return as well. After three months of lockdown, it was announced that the Premier League would return with two matches per team each week behind closed doors in attempt to finish the 2019/20 season.
Although the streamed matches brought the joy of football back in to our lives, it was tainted by the empty stadiums and reinforced the fact that the social aspects of football must adapt to continue within the midst of this pandemic. Above all, it showed us how the game as we know it had become so different. Before the pandemic, many people would never have thought twice about the proximity of fans in every aspect of a football game. From walking through the ticket turnstiles, queuing for a burger and a pint at half-time, moving through rows to get to your seat and sitting thigh to thigh with the person next to you. When you see the empty stands in the most recent games you truly realise just how many fans would be squashed into the stadium and the importance of a live crowd. Although these games have filled that void and finally given us something new to talk about with each other, the added crowd noise can only do so much when juxtaposed with the empty seats.
With rumours circulating that a second spike could be around the corner, along with the announcement that fans will be able to attend sporting matches in October, clear cut rules must be put in place for supporters to return to games without fear. To help with this, pilot projects will take place to help with the wider reopening of sporting stadia in the late autumn. Currently, the chosen pilot projects will be: two men’s county cricket friendly matches at The Oval on 26-27 July; the World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre from 31 July; the Goodwood horse racing festival on 1 August. More pilot events are likely to be held in other sports, but these chosen ones (and more events to follow) will have to follow strict government guidelines which include:
- Fans must agree to a new code of behaviour that includes not attending if they potentially have symptoms of coronavirus or have been exposed to a person who has tested positive;
- Social distancing must be observed in seating arrangements;
- Crowd management plans should be in place, including the controlled entry and exit of fans and one-way systems;
- Screening procedures should be considered at stadium entrances.
The only way people will feel safe enough to attend such events will be if there are strict rules in place to protect them. And people must adhere to them.
A huge part of football and sporting culture is drinking; meeting friends for a pint before a game, one at half time, and often many after. This aspect of sport, which is so widely loved, could well turn out to be a negative. Some people may be put off attending a game as alcohol reduces your inhibitions and, much like with many cases of events in lockdown where alcohol has been present, social distancing often goes out the window.
As a sport lover myself, I know that I would want to attend events if they start to return later this year, but only if the guidelines the government have stated are enforced. I think it is important that as fans we cannot expect the sporting culture to be like it was in the good ol’ days pre Covid-19. In turn, we must not hold the games and players to these expectations as well. Being able to share with complete strangers the common ground of supporting a team live at a stadium, and the adrenaline that comes with it, cannot be replicated. But fans will need to be open to relearning this new way of supporting sport. Yes, unfortunately that will mean controlling yourself when your team score or win and not hugging that random person next to you in euphoria (seriously, control yourself). Following your sport will be completely different to how it was before, but in the hope that in the future we can return to the scenes like the ones of the Cricket World Cup 2020, or the Champions League Final in May 2019, we’re just going to have to suck it up for a while.
By Grace Browne
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