What’s the best soccer game you saw in lockdown? Watched from your sofa with a cup of tea and a macaroon bar, of course – it would be the Celtic-Hearts Scottish Cup final with its twists and turns, great goals and great mistakes, with one club aiming for four times and the other four times a grudge, which is rounded off with a thrilling penalty shootout? Yeah, that wasn’t bad, but weren’t there a few boring spots in the middle?
Sunday, January 24, 2021, 7.30 a.m.
Or maybe it was Serbia against Scotland, the playoffs, that finally enabled us to step off the cold pavement and clasp an embossed invitation to the grand final through the velvet rope. That was the best, no? Well the best one million miles, but did we really see the best football that night? Scotland has held on to it a lot and, as we all know, it is never a pretty sight.
But maybe we’re expecting too much from football right now. It can go on while almost everything else jerkily came to a standstill. Football was seen as vital to the health and wellbeing of the nation, the vaccine before the vaccine if you like.
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That’s quite a bit of pressure. Football as a palliative to keep us from going crazy. Football can do many things, but can it really do that? In normal times, we take football incredibly seriously. Moods are determined by results. But there are other distractions in normal times, other ways to get a bad result out of the system, and ultimately it can provide confirmation that it really is just a game. But football under Covid is expected to be more than a game.
Football under Covid is like a government-approved drug program with the upper provided intravenously through tubing on the back of our televisions. But not every game can be spectacular, a circus with fireworks. Not every team will be ready to take part in such games.
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Some will start games with the best of intentions. I’m going to give Manchester United and Manchester City the benefit of the doubt and accept that they wanted to put on a decent show in last month’s derby because Sky kept telling us it was. But the match was terrible. I wanted to wear my mask while the multimillionaires fumbled from the first to the last whistle. But take this opportunity to pull it over my eyes.
Other clubs may not be able to pretend to be Barcelona – Peak Barca, which is not the version where Lionel Messi knocks opponents down and is sent off – or they just don’t want to. They may not have the players or be in good shape or it just may not be who are supposed to play them that way. Now what happens to you under Boris Johnson’s plan for football as a moral booster? Should they be excluded from further participation?
Of course, one man’s heroic rearguard is another man’s anti-soccer campaign. Burnley parked the bus in Anfield the other day and took a win because Liverpool were so poor. We can hardly blame Burnley; This was the only way they could earn the three badly needed points. But was it as a spectacle detrimental to our sanity as football has this new status in the pandemic and is almost obligated to entertainment?
Rugby continues to be played for the same reason to keep the spirits up, but the recent dissatisfaction with Edinburgh after some rather sluggish performances annoyed head coach Richard Cockerill so much that he was moved to reply, “If you want entertainment, go to Theatre.”
Now he’s not the first contested boss to react like that. Bobby Williamson, when in charge of an equally prosaic Hibernian, stated, “If you want entertainment, go to the movies.” Note that Cockerill Theater said, no doubt in recognition of the Rugger-Bugger’s preference for the higher arts (though not entirely opera). Also note that no one, rugger-buggers or anyone, is currently allowed to visit the theater. Therefore, the Cockerill players have the privilege of being able to continue their work while the majority of the actors have not worked for almost a year.
Neither Edinburgh now nor the Hibees at the beginning of the millennium were able to move the ball with the fluency of Michael Jordan and the rest of the US basketball dream team, as featured in The Last Dance, the big Netflix lockdown hit . I was one of Bobby’s objectors, but at least my friends and I could register our displeasure by staying at the pub or finding another game a bus or a short train ride away. We can’t do any of these things right now.
We have to watch football while we are stuck at home and we are told that it is good for us that it helps us in our nation’s greatest trial since the war. Usually it’s fine for us, but that’s the new normal. Footballers are very fortunate to be able to keep playing and I’m sure most will realize this, but they hardly need any other responsibility placed on them when they already feel like the equivalent of entertaining the armed forces who are tries to entertain everyone together with a song and a gag.
The problem is compounded by the fact that there used to be too much football on TV but is now overflowing with the stuff. When many games are bleak, football doesn’t look like an upper, but more like bromide. I am desperate that this war is over. I want to be matches with the spectators and among them again. Maybe after all the hardships it’s like eating a banana again.