Sport’s return is being strangled by a language of fear and trepidation
Of all the stark messages delivered by the Government’s latest report on our Covidravaged times, perhaps the most arresting was its call for the nation to return to sport and exercise “without fear”. And yet fear, alas, remains its potent weapon. For an example, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which published the document this week, should look no further than its own minister, Oliver Dowden, who heralded this summer’s reassuring thwack of leather on willow thus: “Covid-secure cricket is back.”
In this neurotic climate, plain old “cricket is back” would not suffice.
Apparently, no measure signifying sport’s shift towards normality can be announced without the addition of such caveats as “Covid-secure”, “virusproofed” or “subject to strict social-distancing”, all serving to reinforce public reticence and trepidation. Sometimes, it feels as if the only competition being encouraged in this country is the one to see which sport can be the most slavishly compliant with protocol.
It falls to cricket, snooker and horse racing to wrestle over the next fortnight for that dubious honour. In recent weeks, there has been an odd craze on social media for describing the grandest sporting moments in the most bloodless terms possible. As an illustration, Tiger Woods’s fifth Masters victory becomes “43-yearold Stanford graduate in a red shirt wins golf tournament in a Georgia forest”. Saturday at Glorious Goodwood is reimagined as “day out in the South Downs with cream teas, finger sandwiches and a few horses for company”.
The difference is that the second of these is real. So acute is the paranoia about pinch points that when a semblance of a crowd returns to Goodwood next week, it will be in the form of eight members-only enclosures, with no movement permitted between them to limit congestion along the rails, around the parade ring, and in any place where those paying almost £400 for the privilege might dare to expect the glimpse of an animal.
Doubtless it will all pass muster with the Government, which will declare the test event a triumph and an object lesson in how pandemic-era sportsgoers are expected to behave. But it is difficult to imagine what exactly will have been learned, beyond the ability to stage a sparsely-attended equine Glyndebourne. The true examination will come not with high-summer English garden parties, but with the moment that these oppressive Covid rules are imposed upon football fans.
The early portents are not auspicious. Liverpool supporters were warned time and again not to congregate outside Anfield for the presentation of the Premier League trophy, but still gathered in their thousands, their flares wreathing the stadium in a plume of red smoke. As for newly-promoted Leeds, the club rather undermined their own stay-at-home advice by arranging an open-top bus parade past Elland Road, inviting a mass homage to manager Marcelo Bielsa.
The snap response is to be censorious about all this, to depict the revellers as feckless renegades endangering public health. But passions in football are never going to be unleashed with two metres of separation.
Sharing in a first league title for 30 years or a first top-flight appearance since 2004 is not an experience that conforms easily with the edicts of the Covid police. It is why the Prime Minister’s plan for crowds to return to stadiums by October “in a Covid-secure way” strikes such a discordant note.
When the emotion of football runs free, any notion of distancing flies out of the window. One-way concourses? One in every three seats filled? Forget it. It is such a grotesquely sanitised simulacrum of the matchgoing ritual that you wonder if it will do more harm than good. Denmark was hailed as a beacon of progress last month when it allowed 3,000 fans in for Brondby’s derby against FC Copenhagen, all of them placed at least four seats apart.
Far from being stirring, it was one of the saddest sights of the year, on a par with the Maoist scene of primary-school children changing the words of “Row, row, row your boat” to “Wash, wash,
Passions in football are never going to be unleashed with two metres of separation
wash your hands”. When the UK’s epidemic first took off in late March, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies listed “coercion” as one option for increasing adherence to socialdistancing. Compulsion, it explained, all too prophetically, could combine powerfully with the disapproval of one’s friends and neighbours. We are now four months into this nightmare, and the coercive impulse remains alive and well. Go anywhere near a football ground to share in your team’s glory and you will find yourself publicly shamed.
It is a trend the Government has done little to dissuade, tending to associate sport’s resumption only with fear. No sooner can you start up your five-a-side team or go swimming outdoors than you are strangled by the decrees of Covid bureaucrats. What sport in the UK needs instead, as the DCMS report acknowledges, is a message of affirmation. It highlights the success of “This Girl Can” as a case study for what can be accomplished when people focus more on the opportunities in front of them than the dangers.
Who wants to live forever in fear? Not even Jurgen Klopp. In March, he was screaming at fans to “put your f------ hands away”. Now, he is promising them a proper post-title hoedown “when this bulls--- virus is gone”. It is imperative, then, that the Government spells out a plan for how the sports community can come back together in the fullest sense, not in a state of indefinitely distanced terror.