Wednesday, 1 April 2020

We're on a break but will football come back a better person?

On January 31st 1998 my then Danish girlfriend (she's no longer my girlfriend but is, I believe, still Danish) left her six month working holiday at the hotel we both worked at and returned to her homeland. My mum asked if our farewell was sad, and it was, but she wondered how I would respond to the distance now between us. Would it be a case of out of sight out of mind or absence makes the heart grow fonder'.

A couple of months later it turned out, as it often does for men, that her absence was only properly felt when she decided to make it a permanent arrangement. Suddenly I was desperate to go out there and settle, get a job and meet her parents; only now I deeply regretted the apathetic vibe I had undoubtedly given off to doing all of these things just because I wanted to continue playing with my mates in the Hemel Hempstead Sunday League. I'd been acutely aware of my happiness when we became a couple, and she met my parents and started staying over, but only when she was gone did I really understand what I'd lost.

She was the first girl I cried over. I'd tried weeping over lost girls before, using alcohol as the generator of tears rather than real emotions, and had mooned gloomily for months/years  over even the most fleeting of relationships, but I'd understood what was coming when I saw the thinness of the fateful letter from Denmark, arriving as it did a few days after a phone call from her that had left me with an uneasy feeling.

The tears ran down my cheek effortlessly when my/our fate was confirmed, and I wrote back that day telling her that if she changed her mind I would be here, or there, or wherever she wanted. But of course it was too late, I'd blown it and I had some heartbreak to get through.

Inevitably I will now connect this sad story to football, though it's not quite so neat to compare my Danish girlfriend to my life-long affair with football that, albeit for the moment, has also packed it's bags. Football, it turns out, is no bigger than the world it inhabits, and has been swept aside by Covid 19 just like everything else, about to enter a third week of absence, it's scheduled return of April 2nd shrouded in doubt even on the Friday 13th shutdown, and it'll more likely be June or July when the European Championships - now moved to 2021 - would have been played.

But football still won't be as big as the world it inhabits then, and despite "eagerness" to get the season finished, a cancellation of the season cannot be ruled out. People's health will still be a more pressing issue and every day the sport seems less and less important.

Initially I was disappointed of course; Arsenal were 10 unbeaten in the league, an outside bet for the Champions League and drawn to play at Sheffield United in the FA Cup quarter final, which I fancied us to win. And Tottenham were out of all competitions again, another blank season trophy-wise and no prospect of another Champions League Final for me to have to fret over. And what of the Fantasy League? All that senseless, pointless toil for six months, making rubbish transfers, celebrating your mates' disastrous use of a triple captain. And I was top in my work league at the time of shutdown, a £30 prize within my grasp. And top in the FA Cup game with my new girlfriend's (of 21 years) mum's mates. Though 3rd bottom in that league. And bloody Kane and Rashford could both be fit for a Euro 2021, although they'll probably be just knackered instead.

I would feel for Liverpool of course, nearly 100 points last season, just one defeat this (thank you Watford) and possibly no title to show for their immense efforts. Two wins away from ending the 30 year wait, 25 points clear. They'll start to feel cursed. Then there's that Karren Brady, on the West Ham United board, calling for a null and void season with her team just outside of the bottom three. I can't say for sure she is striking out for her own interests but if she was she would fit in with most of the football makers, and it is because of this kind of self centred outlook and greed that, after those nearly three weeks, I am not mooning gloomily about the lack of football, or turning to drink to wallow in misery - and certainly not crying over it's absence.

The difference between football and my Danish girlfriend is that she didn't have me locked in an unhealthy relationship. She didn't indirectly hand me regular invitations, or compelling reasons to leave her. She didn't walk all over me, take me for granted. She listened to me and cared about how I might feel. Football, generally, doesn't give a shit.

This period of no football is itself a trial period for me, an insight into how I could cope without it; it's an invitation or an opportunity to walk away from all the high maintenance. Every day without VAR is a better day. Every day without a fixture being rearranged for television to the detriment of the travelling fan is a relief. Every time a minimum of £64 isn't handed over for a category A match (just Emirates Stadium as an example) is a nicer existence. Every day that FIFA's expanded 24 team World Club Cup (to "promote the game in China") is under threat feels like a victory. The expansion of the Champions League, likewise. Every day that a football club owned by people guilty of human rights violations doesn't win is a triumph for good.

This can also be a trial period for football, though, and an opportunity. Admit that VAR doesn't belong in football and get rid of it. Think about your people like the government say they are thinking about their people right now. Reduce fixtures instead. Have one team from each country in the Champions' League (perhaps rename it the European Champions' Cup (could work, don't you think?!). Think of climate change while you are at it - even just to piss off bitter men over fifty who want Greta Thunberg dead. See through the punishments given to Manchester City. The evidence and qualified judgements are clear, don't let them wriggle their way back in.

Football in reflection and perspective could build a hopeful future. Could. Or it could be too easy for everyone to return to normal and wait for all this to pass. The government might still underfund the NHS, even after all the crawling and platitudes and big claps. Football may get a 32 team World Club Cup by 2036, VAR might get bigger and uglier, making us forget why we all began playing the game in the first place.

I must admit I would be in a state of meltdown had the pandemic happened between the ages of 5-30 for me, particularly from 19 when I was playing in the mens' Sunday league. I recall writing at about 23 that I couldn't imagine being 40 and not playing football anymore. I was actually 36 when my knee gave way and ended my 11-a side adventure, but I'd had the best of it and I don't miss it now because I gave it everything in those 17 years.

Has my time come now to walk away from the game as a fan, turning instead to YouTube clips of days past? Or when it comes crawling back, will I lack the mental strength of a Gloria Gaynor and fall once more into the arms of the devil?                          

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