Unless you've always been fascinated by the leagues of Belarus or Burundi, the chances are that you haven't watched any live soccer for a couple of weeks. As we've been told by a thousand conscientious pros and commentators, sport is not a priority right now. Still, it's an interesting question to ask at this point -- is there any chance that you are falling out of love with the game? That absence is making the heart grow colder?
A friend in the U.S. e-mailed me last week wondering if everyone who supported the game before the COVID-19 pandemic would be just as committed when it eventually resumes. He told me how he'd been a dedicated fan of baseball up until the 1994 strike. After the strike he stopped going to games and has paid the professional game much less attention since. The same thing happened to him after the NHL strike 10 years later.
As Buckley's novel proved, stories about people who fall out of love with sport don't make for popular narratives. So, switch off and tune out if you want to, but otherwise we don't want to know. What, though, if hundreds of thousands and fans are discovering during these weeks of absence -- weeks that will certainly morph into months -- that they are no longer quite so much in love with soccer as they thought they were?
"Love" is in any case a problematic, hyperbolic and arguably erroneous word to use in association with sport. During these past two weeks, I've found myself dogged by intense sentiment for absent friends and family, especially those more vulnerable to an infectious disease. Like millions of others, I've been getting in touch with people I haven't heard from in a while, just to check that they and their families are holding up. Meanwhile, I haven't missed soccer for a single minute.
That's not to say my affections won't return when the sport does too. It's something of a surprise, though, to discover how easily it dropped off my priority list. The soccer calendar rarely affords us a break of this nature, and even if the league you follow is in its increasingly curtailed offseason, you can be sure that another league, competition or international tournament will be making demands on your time. It's as though the soccer industry itself always suspected that interest might flag as soon as the game takes a breather, and so stocked up the calendar as insurance against losing significant numbers of subscription-paying consumers.
When soccer resumes, games may have to be played behind closed doors, or with fans sitting three seats apart. Initially, it's going to feel odd to be playing at all. If the current season resumes, players will be physically and mentally out of shape. They may not feel like playing any more than I presently feel like watching, or will feel like watching on TV if there are no supporters in the stadium.
Such a malaise may spread down to the amateur level. Perhaps there will be a raft of players who decide that competitive sport is overrated. That practice several times a week before a demanding coach is not the way to spend their free time. It could be that while searching online during endless hours of enforced indoor leisure, we discovered a hundred new places we'd prefer to explore at weekends rather than driving for an hour to sit on the bench fending off mosquitoes. Maybe thousands of young players will find a cause worth fighting for more than three points and a plastic tournament medal. Referees could have worked out that getting yelled at for pocket money is no longer their idea of fun.
Like so much that's being written right now, this is all supposition, probably born of too much time spent indoors. That soccer will need to adopt new financial practices, however, is already an imminent truth. How well-equipped will it also be to deal with a cultural recalibration?
(Ian Plenderleith's latest book, The Quiet Fan (Unbound, 2018), attempted to use comedy, anecdote and self-reflection to explore the role that soccer plays in most people's lives, and the way that we watch and relate to the game. You can buy it HERE.)