We go again
When the announcements were made last spring that football would return from its Covid-inflicted hiatus, we didn’t know what exactly that meant. Football without fans is a pub without punters. And yet we all tuned in to watch the crowdless fixtures on TV and complained about it the entire time.
After a brief flirtation with the German Bundesliga, the first major European league to resume, I felt more anxious and alienated than ever. The Premier League returned in June (‘Project Restart’) with as much conviction as Dominic Cummings claiming he’d driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. Everton were playing better than Liverpool, and Newcastle weren’t half bad. When Liverpool stumbled over the line to win the league at the end of July they celebrated their success in an empty stadium.
The new season began seven weeks later, and finished as scheduled on 23 May 2021. Manchester City walked it to first place, Manchester United took second spot without anyone noticing and Liverpool were third. Three weeks after the season ended, the Euros – postponed from last year and still confusingly branded as ‘Euro 2020’ – are about to start and the last couple of months have also seen the finals of the FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League, and the announcement and rapid abandonment of a European Super League. If that last sentence leaves you exhausted, spare a thought for the players. Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t the only one missing the Euros because of an injury. The world stopped but football’s governing bodies barely took a minute. Money and greed, we go again.
To celebrate sixty years of the competition, the tournament is being held in 11 host cities across the continent, despite the pandemic. Happy Birthday. Two weeks ago Chelsea and Manchester City fans descended on Porto en masse for 24 hours to watch the Champions League final. (UEFA and the UK couldn’t agree on terms to relocate the match to Wembley.) Alongside teams and staff, fans made the trip with the support of City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour, who laid on flights from Manchester Airport.
Days later, Portugal was removed from the UK’s travel green list and fans were told to self-isolate after positive Covid cases were identified on the flights. Their grumbling about loss of earnings shared the front pages with news of the rising death toll in India. As much as I love the game – I want to enjoy this tournament; I need to enjoy this tournament – it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the global inequalities that football so starkly brings to the fore.
In international friendlies this month, racist football fans have been booing players for taking a knee. Since booing is not a punishable offence, it leaves the rest of us with a feeling of unease. The feeling is undoubtedly shared by UEFA, but for different reasons: the beautiful game cannot be tarnished and revenue must be protected at all costs. UEFA is pleading with fans that they ‘show respect’ to players taking the knee during the competition this summer.
Tonight’s opening game between Turkey and Italy is being held in Rome, giving Italy the slight advantage, but Turkey have Çağlar Söyüncü, Leicester’s FA Cup winning defender. Younger than Jamie Vardy, better looking than Jamie Vardy, he’ll no doubt have the support of Leicester fans until the spotlight turns to England. Both teams won their recent friendlies, with Italy – who haven’t lifted the trophy since 1968 – beating the Czech Republic 4-0. Turkey only joined the tournament in 1996 but are supposed to be this year’s dark horses. I don’t know how I’ll feel by the time kick-off arrives, but I have a sense it will be met with mindless enthusiasm.
Bill Shankly’s often misquoted remark – ‘Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you, I said listen, it’s more important than that’ – is as ridiculous as anything Brian Clough might have said but if the last twelve months are anything to go by there may be something in it. Not more important than a matter of life and death but a welcome distraction from it.