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Back with a whimper

Manik Sharma | Updated on July 09, 2020 Published on July 09, 2020

There but not there: The diehard football fan is now only a symbolic presence at match venues   -  REUTERS/ OLI SCARFF

Cut-outs, giant dolls, scarves and pre-recorded applause are filling in for real fans in empty stadia that witness sporting action during the pandemic

* In the second week of May, the German football league was the first to return to the field after the virus outbreak

* In mid June, the English Premier League made a comeback with a match between Arsenal and Manchester City

* The Serie A, Italy’s football league, followed soon after

* The first international cricket Test match series — between England and West Indies — kicked off on July 8

Some of it is back. But only some of it is familiar. Sports have resumed around the world — depending on where you are looking — but it wears a beleaguered, performative look. From macabre inflated dolls at footballs game in South Korea to empty stadiums in Europe, it’s an unknown world that our sporting heroes have limped back into. There is still no Formula One, tennis and there won’t soon be a Euro, a T-20 World Cup or the Olympics either.

Sports fills a kind of vacuum in life, one that draws emotion and cultivates interest in the unscripted and unpredictable. The minutiae of everyday routine mean that we humans mentally scrap for this second-hand chance at uncertainty and, by extension, accomplishment. It also means we make gods out of people, and religions out of formats. Consequently, sports has become a corporatised hierarchy that dictates to its creator — the fan — the rules of access. This year, however, brings some change.

The German football league was the first to make a comeback, in the second week of May. A month later, the English Premier League (EPL) returned with a match between two of its biggest clubs, Arsenal and Manchester City. A few things hadn’t changed. Arsenal’s eccentric defender David Luiz made a spree of erroneous decisions that settled the game before it had even sprung to life. City were typically silky and ruthless. Not much had changed on the pitch. The Manchester stadium, however, was empty, covered in tarpaulins and flags of the home club. The whistle sounded like a shrill echo, easily drowning the screams of the players. There was another abhorrent ingredient thrown into the mix: The EPL’s decision to use pre-recorded stadium noise, created by gaming giant EA Sports, to punctuate events within the game. None of it, though, has colour or character. Even to viewers (like me) who have only ever seen English football through telecasts, it was a hollow addition that only confirmed the material nature of our interaction with the game.

The EPL was soon followed by the Serie A, Italy’s football league, despite the country being one of the worst affected by the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe. The template was similar. Regular medical examinations of the players, social distancing protocols, the ban on crowding around referees and spitting. And of course, the empty stadia. Elsewhere, tennis’s most prized event Wimbledon was cancelled, so was cricket’s most lucrative IPL. But Test cricket is back after a hiatus, with a series of three matches between England and West Indies that kicked off earlier this week.

There are different aspects to this interlude. First, the prospect of not being able to watch some greats — including Roger Federer, MS Dhoni and Cristiano Ronaldo (he’ll be 35 by next year’s Euro, should they ever happen) — retire on the big stage. Second, the exploitative relationship that sports and governing bodies have forced the average fan into.

Fans are free to choose what they watch and whom they worship, but they are scarcely free to choose the rules of engagement, the financial value put on their involvement in the game. For years now the English football fan has been crying foul over eye-watering ticket prices at their local stadia. An Arsenal game at the Emirates can cost you between £24 and £95. The only affordable way to watch a Wimbledon game on Centre Court is to enter a public ballot. Football’s governing body FIFA is reputed for sucking countries dry of money through the coveted, though poisonous, privilege of hosting the World Cup. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil famously left the host country several billion dollars in debt. The upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar has already become a humanitarian crisis that the capitalists behind the project refuse to address.

This crooked system, though, is supported by the fact that the fans will return; that if not for the momentary socialist rebellion, common fans cannot outlive the need for sporting thrill — that is as long as their life itself doesn’t depend on it. Which it now does, literally.

Sport being limited to live telecasts at best means it is now reduced to competing for the entertainment slot. It can’t, for the time being, offer that sacred step-up to the entitled and elite levels of ‘witnessing’ and ‘sharing’ — that elusive experience that motivates and captivates everyone who follows.

Our interest in cricket is embellished by whatever little we play in our gullies; our love for football comes from that weekend game on an uneven field in a corner of the city. Without contact, sports can neither be practised nor enjoyed up close. It has to instead cling on to interest, like a long forgotten song sitting in your playlist. Whether we choose to play it out of joy or loyalty is our choice, but for once we have significant power over the way sport is transacted and exhibited. Now would be the time to bring in some long due structural change: To demand more and demand better.

Manik Sharma writes on sports, arts and culture

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Published on July 09, 2020
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