Beaches and parks are packed. The lockdown is fraying at the edges with mixed messages coming from Westminster. Yet still the nation is fixated on whether fans will gather outside stadiums when top-flight football returns in 13 days’ time.
It has been a recurring theme during the sport’s three-month hiatus and was discussed again at the Premier League meeting on Thursday. The assumption is that supporters will be drawn to grounds by some sort of Pavlovian response, regardless of any threat to their own health or that of their families. This reflects a deep-seated disdain for fans.
Fanaticism has its limits. Much of the concern has been targeted at Liverpool supporters. Jurgen Klopp’s team are on the verge of bringing the title to Anfield for the first time in 30 years and the implication is that Kopites will be unable to resist the temptation to gather to celebrate.
Even the city’s mayor, Joe Anderson, suggested that Liverpool fans might turn up in their thousands when the team seals the Premier League. Anderson should know better.
The impact of the Champions League match against Atletico Madrid on 11 March has been profound. Almost 3,000 Atletico fans were allowed to come to Anfield at a time when the Spanish capital was one of the epicentres of the Coronavirus emergency. Two weeks after Atletico’s visit, Merseyside experienced a surge of Covid-19 deaths which peaked almost a month after the game. This is the most direct link between football and the virus in the UK. It is unimaginable that supporters who were placed in danger by the decision to go ahead with the match would willingly put themselves at risk again.
There are deeper reasons, too, why Liverpool fans are unlikely to act carelessly. These are the children and grandchildren of Hillsborough; they understand the far-reaching effects of tragedy and have no appetite to recklessly jeopardise others.
Yet it is not just Liverpool supporters whose good sense is being questioned. The ingrained mistrust of fans cuts across rivalries. Football’s followers have had the role of folk devils foisted on them for more than half a century. Even in the era of hooliganism, the fear factor was frequently exaggerated. Now, in the sedate world of the Premier League, there is barely any justification for the sort of snap judgements the authorities and public make about supporters.
The experience of Germany has been instructive. Barely any people gravitated towards stadiums during behind-closed-doors games in the Bundesliga. We are likely to see a similar pattern when the Premier League resumes.
Those who like to think the worst of fans frequently cite Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund that took place on the same night as Atletico’s ill-fated visit to Anfield. Although supporters were not allowed inside, thousands gathered outside the Parc des Princes. This was before the full gravity of the epidemic became apparent, however. France had experienced less than 50 fatalities at that time. The carefree mood in the French capital disappeared rapidly as the death-toll mounted.
There were concerns in Portugal yesterday when the Primeira Liga resumed. A group of Porto supporters threatened to attend the game against Famalicao and chant throughout the match. They were kept away from the stadium during their team’s 2-1 defeat. Scenes like this are unlikely to replicated at English grounds. Portugal has suffered less than 1,500 Covid-19 deaths. Even sticking to questionable Government figures, the UK has seen almost 40,000 citizens succumb to the virus. Those figures are as chilling to football supporters as anyone else.
The game takes on a different flavour when played in front of empty seats. The veracity of the axiom ‘football without fans is nothing’ will be endorsed over the coming months. But the supporters who enhance the experience by providing atmosphere deserve more respect than has been afforded them in recent weeks.
By the time the Premier League kicks off the lockdown will be even more ragged. It is unravelling on a daily basis without the help of fans. The overwhelming majority of supporters will remain at home and watch the action on the television. For all the talk about people assembling outside stadiums, football fans are likely to prove more trustworthy than some government special advisors. The forecourts and car parks of Anfield, Old Trafford and the Emirates will be significantly emptier on matchdays than the nation’s beaches, parks and historic beauty spots.