As the months go by and the prospects of returning to football stadia anytime soon diminish, we get to thinking about what things will look like once this is all over. And by “all over”, I don’t mean any form of socially-distanced matchday experience: I’m referring to thousands (or even just hundreds) of human souls being once again permitted to cram into terraces behind the touchlines and the bylines and allowed to go laldy.
Whether it’s autumn of 2021 or, perhaps more likely, the start of the 2022-23 season, we can at least remain optimistic that football-going normality will resume at some point in time. But, potentially two years after the beginning of this football-going blackout, what will be the consequences?
Nostalgia & Personal Freedom
Generally speaking, I’m hopeful we’ll see something akin to a post-war boom once the restrictions die away. There will be the nostalgia of being able to relive moments from a seemingly past life, of recapturing the sights, the sounds and the smells of years gone by. (After all, no matter how many times your local ground has been sterilised and doused in chlorine, surely it can’t eradicate decades of spilt bovril, stale beer or Caffè Borghetti, depending on your locality). And nostalgia won’t just bring out the hard core. Take the casual Hibs fan who stopped attending matches when Bobby Williamson or Terry Butcher took over; or the Bari tifoso who became disillusioned under the ownership of Vincenzo Matarrese. The resumption of football offers a fresh start and the chance to pick up “where you left off”, whether that was the spring of 2020 or many moons ago.
The nostalgia of meeting old schoolmates, cousins, your dad. At the train station, in the boozer, at the back of the Curva Nord. By the time we resume, we’ll be sick to the back teeth of cups of tea in the garden and long walks through national parks. Let’s experience something. Let’s reminisce about old times in the setting where those old times were lived. Let’s do football.
It’s only logical that we’ll also develop a renewed sense of personal freedom by the time this is all over. Not in the political sense, but in our relationships with family and our “significant others”. I’m off with my pals to the football, you go see your friends, and we can do Ikea online. After months and months of being stuck in the house with our (beloved, naturally) families, we’ll all need an outlet of sorts. Now if we can just tear the kids away from their domestic comforts, they too can be introduced to new heroes, in the flesh rather than on 42-inch plasma.
A wave of bodies infiltrating stadia, whether by conviction or by force (or, in my 4-year-old’s case, by the promise of stopping at the toy shop on the way home). An authentic post-millenial, post-war boom.
Indeed, the English Premier League will surely see demand like it has never seen before. At the highest level in Italy, Germany and Spain, we’ll likely see something similar. The new context will attract fans to the stadium from all over the country and from further afield. Football tourism will take off again, but harder and faster. And a couple of seasons’ worth of losses will have to be offset somehow. The fans will understand the price hike. After all, they don’t want to see their club die, do they? Oh, you’re out of work, are you? We refer to our corporate statement – we’re a Community Club; not a charity. Now move aside, we’ve got sponsors to accommodate.
Sponsors to accommodate. New, international fans to accommodate. Sponsors and international fans that will be lacking for clubs further down the leagues. The question, then, is to what extent those clubs will see these consequences replicated?
Let’s assume that football will be back to normal by as late as the start of the 2022-23 season. That gives top European clubs a free run at the “Football Consumption Market” for more than two years. For decades, now, local football clubs have continued to hold a strong position within their communities, even in the face of increased live television coverage and media championing of the richest and most successful clubs. But the “local” only holds sway if it is locally accessible, which certainly isn’t the case now. Sure, lower-league clubs have been offering some brilliant initiatives in offering streaming services (and even half-time pies) to whoever wants to watch them. But which youngster of sane mind would spend their Saturday afternoon watching Falkirk vs Partick Thistle (or Avellino vs Vibonese) if Barcelona or Juventus are on the other channel?
Here, the family dimension becomes irrelevant. Sitting your 9-year-old daughter or son in front of the television (or laptop) for 90 minutes cannot possibly recreate the same interest or bond which develops when you’re sitting on top of a football pitch. There are too many distractions, it’s too artificial. The experience is lost and all you’re doing is dragging out the poor creature’s afternoon with 5,400 seconds of poor-quality sport (it will feel like double that to them). You’d be better putting on the snooker, for crying out loud!
High-quality sport means Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Inter. They know that, the media know that, young football enthusiasts will know that and they’re class at school will know that, if they didn’t already.
In the UK, the post-war attendance boom was a series of local booms. It depended on people visiting their local ground on Saturday afternoons after work, not travelling miles and miles to London, Manchester or Glasgow. The Italian attendance boom of the late 70s was built on ultras movements that grew from groups of classmates, or agglomerations of groups, which gave the Curva an authentic (albeit often socially dangerous) community feel.
This is where any prospect of local attendance booms could fail: younger generations will be more disinterested than ever, as the market manipulates them away from the local club they would otherwise have invested time going along to see. In Scotland, fans used to say “I’m a Dundee fan, but Man City are my English team”. This is fast becoming: “I’m a Man City (or Barca) fan, but my dad supports Dundee”. Of course, this is a process that has been developing over time, especially with the moneyed rise of the English Premier League, but the market exploitation by Europe’s most powerful (and the financial interests behind them) is taking it up a notch.
In Cuore di Cuoio,Cosimo Argentina’s masterpiece about football and adolescence in 1970s Taranto, protagonist Camillo Marlo says: “Oltre al magico Taranto tifo Milan” [Besides the magic Taranto, I also support AC Milan]. In the modern day, he might have said “I support AC Milan, but Taranto are my local team.” Once the pandemic is over and stadia are reopening, it’s logical that he might just say: “I support AC Milan”.
Younger generation don’t carry the Nostalgia of longer-in-the-tooth football-goers. But they will have that yearning for personal freedom: freedom from their parents, from the boundaries of their house or flat, from the controlled “leisure” activities they are currently allowed to participate in. Hopefully, they can pursue this desire for freedom, new experiences and new social paradigms on a local level by getting their mates together and spending their Saturday or Sunday afternoons at Victoria Park in Dingwall or New Broomfield in Airdrie, at Catania’s Cibali or Taranto’s Iacovone. Let’s remain hopeful that, when we leave the challenges and stresses of the current period behind, post-millenials and all of us living in this post-millenial era can appreciate what the local can offer us over the global.
“Oltre al magico Greenock Morton, tifo Borussia Dortmund.” I can get on board with that.