This sport we love is loud. It is heavy handed, a picture of excess and consumerism featuring high-drama competition between lavish-living millionaires in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. As the entertainment industry does, it sensationalises the daily lives of these players, finding outrage and controversy in their most mundane acts (especially if they’re black). Football is loud, at least it was before the pandemic.
This ever-growing unmovable beast of a sport was forced to halt last year, an event which threatened the industry. Decisions were made to keep football alive, and these decisions have spun webs that will take years to unravel. During the Euros, we saw the small-scale effects of these decisions, namely in the fatigue of the players, but for them and for fans, managers and journalists, the year of Covid, the year of quiet, will bring consequences we are yet to see.
Lost In Nothingness
Football stopping in March 2020 commenced a period of prolonged angst and desperation for distraction. As fans, we were left only to our speculation. How long could it be before football comes back? Six months? A year? What would be the point of playing without fans? How many clubs can survive this? The pandemic made us question the most fundamental aspects of the sport which we assumed were taken for granted. Without the strict structure and routine of club football, we were lost in the wilderness to imagine what this sport would be.
It felt like the football world was still adjusting to remote training and a long period without the game when the Bundesliga returned in May of the same year and the Premier League followed suit the following month. With a stockpile of delayed fixtures and pent up angst to see the sport we love return, football would not be the same on its restart. Football came back carrying baggage, baggage which was never truly acknowledged.
We Needed This, They Did Not
What we expected from footballers after football’s restart is a classic example of the way we see entertainers. They had been surrounded by the same uncertainty we had, the same peril to themselves and to their families, the same death toll we saw rack up each day. Yet, the spectacle they provide was too much of a temptation for us to truly consider that. We needed to debate lineups and managers and tactics. We needed normalcy, but so did they.
The idea of Project Restart was made with fans in mind more than those who deliver the sport itself. Players had to swallow their fear and find their way back to full intensity in order to finish the season in the summer of 2020. Nothing could be more anti-player than forcing them to play in the heat of summer when the entire football season is scheduled so such intense activity takes place in the colder months. The 19/20 season eventually ended in August… the same month the 20/21 season was due to start. If the governing bodies of Europe cared at all about the athletes, the season would have been substantially delayed to ensure their safety, instead the season-opening Community Shield was played on August 29th. Along with the extra physical pressure, players were dealing with the acoustic weight of quiet.
The quiet of a football pitch was an alien concept a couple years ago. As a player, you expect to be greeted with chants, cheers, noise, but from June 2020 all you had was a deafening silence. In theory, this could lift some pressure, allowing you to play your natural game with minimal distraction. The usual adrenaline rush may not be there, but it may improve your decision-making, your logic winning out over your emotion. However, this theory fails to acknowledge the complete emotional overload of COVID as well as where those fans are when they’re not in the stadium.
A Premier League footballer is used to carrying the hopes of tens of thousands of spectators, but with an empty stadium, those hopes are not simply dropped. The weight of them is multiplied. Each unfilled seat in the stands represents thousands of people sitting at home watching you, needing you to put on a performance to save them from the monotonous purgatory of lockdown. For many players, there was no break, no recalibration period away from the spotlight. The weight of nations was heaped onto players’ backs during the Euros and for some, again at the empty-stadiumed Olympics. Pedri played 73 games last season, what could be the long term physical and mental effects? With tens of thousands less people in the stadium, the sound in the ears of a footballer was louder than ever.
The Lasting Effects of Quiet
Project restart worked. Footballing bodies across Europe were able to establish some kind of normal as we head into an August to May season of full capacity crowds. The tax on footballers was lightly discussed, but it is not difficult to see a future where the struggles of footballers in 2020 and 2021 are swept under the rug.
Extreme quiet did not mean peace to these players. It meant exposing yourself to people during a pandemic. It meant changing the fundamentals of your routine and preparation and being expected to perform to the same level. It meant being an entertainer through a time where your country was surrounded by a life-threatening disease presenting a real danger to you and your loved ones. We have been ushering players from one game to the next, not considering what football may have taken from them during the quiet.
Running players through the mill like this feels like yet another inhumane decision made by those in charge of the game that we are collectively ready to excuse. The promise of the sport we love makes any pill easier to swallow. Those in charge of clubs, leagues and associations have a license to go as far as they see fit, but they will come up against a generation of players with a voice. We saw them speak about being overplayed during the 20/21 season. We saw them speak out against the European Super League as it became real. There will be a point where footballers beg to be seen less as entertainers and more as people, but will it be quiet enough for us to listen?