When did it become real for you? Perhaps it was when the first grisly footage started emerging from Wuhan, of deserted and dystopian streets, of a human catastrophe beyond understanding. Perhaps it was when an entire airline went bust, when plans and schemes were thrown into disarray. Perhaps it was when the Italian government decided in effect to put an entire nation of 60 million people under house arrest or when every school in Ireland shut down.
Or perhaps it was when they called off Fulham v Brentford on Friday night. If so, there’s no need to feel ashamed or abashed about it: for so many of us, sport isn’t simply a way of passing the time but a way of marking it. It offers a liturgy, a structure on which to measure the passing days and seasons. Tuesday and Wednesday: Champions League. Thursday: Premier League darts. Friday night: Super League rugby. And then the entire weekend, from the Saturday lunchtime kick-off to the PGA golf on Sunday night: hours and hours of it, all stretched out before us like a delicious picnic. In frightening times, virus or no virus, these are the rituals that offer the veneer of normality, a background noise as reassuring and immutable as the ticking of the clock.
And so, as the enormous industrial complex of global sport clanks to a terrifying halt, it is only natural to feel shocked, concussed, perhaps even a touch bereft. Things move pretty fast in the corona-verse: in the space of a fortnight we’ve gone from ironic elbow-bumps in the pub to the postponement of virtually the entire sporting schedule, Euro 2020 potentially becoming Euro 2021, Mikel Arteta in quarantine. Every day, every hour seems to bring more jolts to a system that on some level we all took for granted.
All four English professional football divisions, the top two FA women’s divisions, the big five European leagues, the Champions League and Europa League: off for now. England’s tour of Sri Lanka, the Masters, the Giro d’Italia, the London Marathon: all postponed. Tennis and Formula One simply not happening. This is, in short, the most seismic disruption to the sporting calendar since the second world war, with the possibility that an obliterated spring is simply the prelude to an annihilated summer and a torched autumn.
The first point to make is that on plenty of levels none of this matters. Liverpool being denied the Premier League title on a technicality; the Six Nations being voided; the Olympics being called off – all of this pales against the human toll: the fear, the loneliness, the deprivation, the thousands and perhaps even millions being wheeled into hospitals for the last time. In a way this has been the first and most important sporting consequence of the pandemic: that for all the time and money and hope and anger we invest in this business of balls and implements, all of it is ultimately expendable.
The second point to make is that clearly, to some people, it does matter a bit. One only had to read the responses of fantasy football managers to the news from the official Premier League account that Manchester City v Arsenal had been postponed on public safety grounds. “Absolute farce of a decision on your part,” fumed one. “Complete bullshit, just another example of how this game is complete luck,” observed another. “Your game’s rigged, fuck off,” said a user called Fents, which raised the salient issue of just how – and never mind the why for a moment – Fents reckons the Premier League confected a deadly virus outbreak that would sweep the UK just in time to deny him his rightful Aubameyang triple-captain points.
It can be seen, too, in the toxic, self-interested shrillness with which some fans have greeted the havoc of a truncated season. Would Leeds or Coventry still be promoted? Would it be fair for Aston Villa to be relegated in 19th place with a game in hand? Would you be prepared to risk the deaths of strangers in order to guarantee that your club would win the league? I don’t know how many fans would answer yes to that last question, but the last few days on social media have demonstrated that it is certainly higher than zero.
Perhaps, then, this is the flip side to all the feelgood stories we tell ourselves in this job: if we are genuine about the power of sport to inspire, to edify, to spread happiness and bring people together, then we need to be honest about the consequences of its absence. This is about more than simply having nothing to watch on TV on a Saturday; although, if this is the sort of thing that gives your life meaning and shape, then who are we to judge? Rather, the absence of sport offers a microcosm of the wider atomisation that we can expect over these housebound weeks and months: a slow and gradual retreat from the shared spaces and shared consciousness that live events provide, away from the public and into the private.
The broadcasters will still have airtime to fill, of course. Your favourite Sunday newspaper will still have column inches to populate. And in the meantime the hot coals of the internet will continue to rage as if nothing had happened. Sport’s dark web – all that coiled tension and angst, all those interminable arguments about Goats and frauds and “credit”, all those WhatsApp threads set up purely to bitch about people on other WhatsApp threads – this shall endure, even in the absence of any actual sport over which to fulminate.
Perhaps, during these long weeks ahead, we could all use a little patience. Perhaps even a little humility, especially in the face of unfolding human tragedy. Perhaps we will succumb to the charms of a new obsession: live games of Fifa on YouTube, Bolivian nose wrestling on Eurosport 2, or perhaps one of the few sports – speedway, horse racing, non-league football – that at the time of writing has decided to plough on regardless.
And then one day it will all be over. Athletes will emerge from their hibernation and return to training. Fixtures will be rescheduled. Stadiums will open for business. Little by little the galaxy of sport will blink back into life and it will feel like a benediction and an irrelevance all at once: a reminder that of all the things that don’t matter sport matters most of all.