In a grim year, football underlined its importance to the nation. A game that was drifting away from its cultural moorings on currents of greed, celebrity and stupidity once again proved it is the best expression of working-class culture.
The avarice and mercenary attitudes have not gone away but the pandemic brought the finer aspects of the sport to the fore. The battle lines were drawn early in the Covid-19 emergency. In April, Matt Hancock made a comparison between frontline hospital staff and players. “Given the sacrifices people are making,” the Health Secretary said, “including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice and gone into work and caught the disease and have sadly died, I think the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution; take a pay cut and play their part.”
On the face of it, the juxtaposition of medical professionals and players was fatuous, a masterpiece of false equivalence. Hancock did not call on bankers and billionaires, with their offshore tax havens, to “play their part.” Right-wing commentators frequently struggle to comprehend the level of ability and the effort it takes to earn a place at game’s highest level and resent the rewards available to top-class footballers. The easiest way to deflect attention from catastrophically failing policies was to exploit the wealth gap between players and fans and evoke the politics of envy.
Yet Hancock, in his moronic, venal way, actually highlighted something that he did not comprehend. Football is not just a business; it has wider social components and implications. It was not created with the aim of generating profit. It developed out of churches and factories where friends and workmates came together for pleasure. It is rooted in communities and remains a communal activity. Everton and Liverpool grew out of the congregation of St Domingo’s; Arsenal’s roots are in an armaments factory; Manchester United started with railway workers organising a team. They may now be worldwide concerns competing across global markets but their antecedents are humble. They are just Premier League examples. All over Britain clubs are the focus of local identity and pride.
Margaret Thatcher, who despised the game, said “there is no society.” Football is living proof that the deranged deity of Conservatism was wrong. Hancock probably thought he was on safe ground. In the popular imagination Premier League players are as selfish and grasping as Tory MPs. Instead, a young man from a struggling one-parent family in Wythenshawe emerged as a national hero.
Marcus Rashford’s campaign to alleviate child hunger has been uplifting and depressing in equal measure. It has been inspiring that a 23-year-old has the compassion and awareness to confront a truth many politicians would rather avoid – that it has become normal for children in the UK to endure hunger. Rashford’s motives have been questioned and he is sneered at by the selfish but the Manchester United forward is a beacon for sanity and decency in desperate times.
He is not the only one. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson organised a coronavirus fund that raised millions from dressing-rooms around the Premier League. Clubs across the country have done their best to lift spirits and help people during the pandemic. The stands may be empty but the bonds between fans and teams have grown stronger.
Stadiums are hubs for community action. The Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF) initiative has spread across the UK. ‘Hunger doesn’t wear club colours’ should not be a refrain heard in 2020 in Britain but the need for donations grows more acute every day. Supporters are viewed as brutish and nihilistic by some but the FSF’s work is a truer reflection of fan behaviour than the traditional stereotypes.
There will always be groups that play to the bogeyman image. Millwall fans, who booed when players took the knee to highlight racism, received a lot of attention. Superficially it was another example of knuckledragging bigots in action but that is too simplistic. Supporters at the Den have built their identity around being obnoxious. Chelsea fans – who do not have the best record on racism – applauded when players knelt. Events at Stamford Bridge were much more reflective of the feelings of matchgoers across the country. Players will continue to highlight the problems of inequality and prejudice. The Black Lives Matter movement grew in response to very real issues and in the past the game might have chosen to ignore them. Kneeling is a visible sign that footballers are no longer willing to accept racist behaviour. Raheem Sterling and others have been vocal and articulate in condemning racial abuse. Again, players are doing more to confront the structural problems in society than those in government.
Matches played before empty stands have reinforced another basic truth that many forget. The actual game of football is only a small part of the experience of going to the match. We miss the gathering beforehand, the common purpose with fellow fans during the 90 minutes and the post-match discussions. The sport brings people together, even in its televised form. People congregate in pubs or watch with mates. One of the more painful aspects of the lockdown is the ban on households mixing which means you cannot pop round to the neighbours or a friend’s place to enjoy the camaraderie during the game.
These painful months have reinforced – and reminded some – that sport is a communal activity. It is at its best when those involved are working together and feel part of something bigger. For two decades the game’s superstars appeared to become ever more distanced from supporters, insulated by money and fame. The virus has shown that this is not true and has renewed the connection. From Rashford fighting for impoverished children to players and managers making video calls to those struggling to cope with isolation, the game has proved its importance to the community. It made a contribution. It played its part.
At a time of crisis, it turned out that football had not forgotten its roots.