At the end of a wintry schoolday in February, a teacher in Bergamo, northern Italy opened up a note from a parent. It raised a smile. “This is to inform you Edoardo will be away from class for a socio-historic commitment,” it read. The teacher posted it online for locals to enjoy. Among them was the mayor of Bergamo, Giorgio Gori, who cheerfully told his constituents that he thoroughly approved of young Edoardo playing truant for a day.
Young Edoardo’s "socio-historic commitment" would be a family trip to a football match, a landmark occasion for Bergamo’s leading club, Atalanta. They had reached the knockout stage of the Uefa Champions League for the first time ever, an against-the-odds achievement that captivated a city of 120,000. Atalanta versus Spain’s Valencia represented a once-in-a-childhood "I was there" moment. Edoardo would be travelling in a vast convoy to the match, and the journey itself would be an adventure. The game was staged at San Siro, Milan, some 70 kilometres away because Atalanta’s stadium, built for a middle-ranking team in a small city, was not deemed sufficiently large or modern.
Forty thousand, equal to one-third of Bergamo's population, were supporting Atalanta in Milan as they beat Valencia 4-1 – a community united in the sort of civic pride that a crowd at a sports event can display just as vividly as any street march. In the context of modern elite, pan-European football, where the connection between the mighty, wealthy clubs and their locale often seems diminished by ever-shifting ownership and corporate branding, Atalanta's underdogs were refreshingly old-fashioned.
Fast-forward a matter of days, and the thrilling result on the evening of February 19 had become a socio-historic event for very different, terrible reasons. Bergamo was suddenly the centre of Europe's coronavirus contagion, and as medical experts struggled to understand the disease and its fatal grip on a prosperous Italian city, they cited the amassing of so many people at exactly the wrong time. "That football match," Mayor Gori concluded, "was a ticking time-bomb." In Spain, the soaring Covid-19 crisis was being traced to the very same match. Some of Spain's first diagnosed infections were patients who had been among the 2,000 who travelled to Milan to follow Valencia.
Covid-19 would abruptly alter attitudes to all public spaces. Our habits in sporting arenas turned out to tick almost every high-risk box: the close contact with strangers, who you might spontaneously high-five or embrace; the shouting and chanting, releasing all those aerosol droplets; the cramming into packed trains, busses or shared cars to and from stadiums.
The habits of major events, meanwhile, directly confront any notion of safe confinement: the Olympic Games, World Cups, continental championships are celebrated precisely for the way they hurdle national borders, gathering fans from all corners of the planet. In a pandemic, the glorious frivolity of sport as we know it quickly looks irresponsible. It needs to tread sensitively, as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix did last weekend, when a small number of spectators was allowed in at Yas Marina – 600 spread over the two days of practice and race day. Priority for tickets was given to frontline workers.
For the past six months, most of the popular spectator sports that have returned to the calendar have done so to emptied stadiums, as television-only events driven back into action largely by the need for the sports involved to honour television contracts. It has created a very different landscape, and for all the inventiveness of broadcasters – using simulated crowd noise, interactive Zoom interludes with on-screen fans – it is a decaffeinated version of live sport. But it has been part of life in 2020 for long enough that readjusting to crowds will take some getting used to.
In some parts of the world, spectators have now begun to trickle back into arenas, with governments aware that having fans on site is a strong symbol of a "return to normality", a sort of political triumph. In the English Premier League – the most watched domestic football competition in the world – that normality means ordered, regimented, socially distanced rows and lines of masked fans, no more than 2,000 in stadiums built for 50,000-odd, in certain towns and cities.
London was one, for a brief two weeks. There, the first weekend of limited attendance at football produced not unconfined joy but controversy. In the Championship, the second tier of English football, with fans let in under the same regulations as the Premier League, Millwall's match against Derby County kicked off to loud booing, a premeditated response from a portion of the 2,000 home supporters directed specifically at players taking a knee to mark their rejection of racism.
Since elite English football resumed after the spring lockdown, players from a vast majority of clubs have been taking a knee, symbolically, for a few seconds at the sound of the referee's whistle at the beginning of each game. The gesture has become a powerful statement of sport's power to unite, articulate a cause and send it, via television, across the planet. With fans back on site in south-east London, that unity fractured. Those who booed at Millwall very purposefully gained a platform, some of them later arguing that they booed not as racists but in protest against a Black Lives Matter movement that had become "politicised".
Ahead of Millwall’s next home match, the club issued a letter to all those attending, arguing that there should be no repeat of the booing. It spelled out “your duty and responsibility”, that “the eyes of the world are on this football club – your club – and they want us to fail". It worked in as far as there was applause as players from visiting Queens Park Rangers took a knee after both teams’ players had linked arms; it struck a sour note in that the letter suggested very clearly that Millwall felt that its fans in the stands needed to be corralled into decency by the threat that the world “wants us to fail".
Importantly, across dozens of stadiums in England, the Millwall booing was a rarity; but it was not quite unique. There have been similar incidents when players took a knee at Cambridge United and Colchester United, clubs lower down the hierarchy of the English professional game. The Colchester chairman, Robbie Cowling, condemned the booing, told those who had booed to “at the very least stay silent, or just stay away from our club".
“I will be happy," he added, “to refund anyone for the remaining value of their season permit if that is the reason they feel they can no longer attend our games."
How long taking the knee remains part of the matchday remains to be seen. What happened at Millwall reminded that sports stadiums are public spaces that some spectators occupy with a sense of entitlement, of antagonism, and a feeling that in a crowd there is a safety in numbers to act disruptively and abusively.
The continuing health emergency means it will be a while yet before large numbers are deemed safe enough to be filling big stadiums. And when they are, many may fill more slowly than they did pre-pandemic. Surveys show a public reluctance, after nine months of restrictions, to re-enter crowded spaces. But sport needs them. At sport's richer summits, money from television, and the sponsorship and advertising that feeds off big TV audiences mean ticket-sales are only one pillar of the sport's income. But for most teams and clubs, the traffic through the turnstiles is what keeps the business afloat.
Broadcasters, anxious that a generation of fans prefer consuming their matches in brief highlights, via smartphone, also need crowds as part of their 24/7 live show. Skilfully staged though major behind-closed-doors events like the Indian Premier League cricket tournament in the UAE, or the one-venue conclusion to the Uefa Champions League in Lisbon have been in 2020, there is nothing like an audience to stimulate the adrenaline.
In 11-a-side sports, competitors refer to on-site supporters as “our 12th player". He or she is often unruly, frequently biased, occasionally obnoxious. But almost every elite athlete will recognise a piece of themselves in every crowd. They were once just like young Edoardo of Bergamo, enchanted at being part of a special occasion that meant so much to so many.
Ian Hawkey is a European football correspondent for The National