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Thankfully, English football opens its eyes

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The response to the growing risk of coronavirus is a reminder that the act of ball-kicking is the great respite, yet a largely trivial, inconsequential one

Everton FC v Derby County - Premier League 2 Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

“Thousands and thousands of hours of football, each more climactic than the last! Constant, dizzying, 24-hour, year-long, endless football! Every kick of it massively mattering to someone, presumably! Watch it all, all here, all the time, forever! It will never stop! The football is officially going on forever! It will never be finally decided who has won the football! There is still everything to play for, and forever to play it in!

“Watch it! Watch the football! Watch it! Watch it! It’s gonna move! Watch the football! It’s football!”

If you’re unfamiliar with David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look,’ and their 2008 sketch entitled ‘Watch The Football! , that’s a flavour of it for you. It is, essentially, a two-minute monologue from Mitchell, the archetypal over-zealous Sky Sports presenter to a tee, the relatively sober pitch for Portsmouth vs Southampton spiralling irreversibly at breakneck speed into the most vehement tirade about just how much televised football they have for you. And, of course, just how crucial every single second of it should be to everyone everywhere.

It was, obviously, a parody; Mitchell, for what it’s worth, has repeatedly expressed his disdain for football and even wrote an entire Guardian column to that effect. Yet in many ways, however deliberately blusterous the delivery was, this only renders his over-arching point even more salient. So transparent is this feverish passion for the sport among those enveloped in its swelling bubble that even the laymen can spot it, understand it, and make terrifically on-the-nose skits about it.

The reason it worked on so many levels is because, loathe as we are to admit it, we are all guilty of sharing this rabid, disproportionate fixation for the game. Illogical as it is in the grand scheme of things, we are obsessed. For 90 minutes of pure, undiluted ball-kicking, all that matters to an Evertonian is whether that Jordan Pickford clearance goes astray. Or whether Dominic Calvert-Lewin buries that gilt-edged chance. Or whether André Gomes sprays those beautiful diagonals, like an artist adding the final strokes to his latest masterpiece. It makes or breaks weekends. It sends limbs flailing and tears streaming. And yet ultimately, it’s all just a blink of an eye.

But perhaps this fervour accounts for why, as the proliferation of coronavirus cases across Europe continues to the extent that it is now the pandemic’s epicentre, English football looked increasingly like the last bastion of public life as we once knew it. Even after every other major league across the continent had been suspended (aside from the Bundesliga, which also went on Friday). Even after Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his divisive, at times aloof address to the nation on Thursday evening. Indeed, it seems that, ostensibly, that it took Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi to reveal late on Thursday night they contracted the virus for hands to be forced.

Arsenal Training Session
Arteta revealed he has coronavirus late on Thursday night
Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Better late than never, it is unquestionably the right call. Seeing the season out behind closed doors may have limited the potential spread, but it would have felt grossly unfair, counter-intuitive, even, that both playing and non-playing staff, members of the media and anyone else in attendance should not be granted the same level of protection as absent fans, as if their lives carry less inherent value. Johnson admitted on Thursday that many will lose loved ones, and while this feels a galling truism of these dystopian times, it does not make any loss of life, or even the risk of it, any more forgivable. Where it is preventable, it must be prevented. Fans would still likely gather somewhere - I raise you the thousands of jubilant PSG supporters outside the Parc des Princes on Wednesday - and in an alternate setting, such as the confined inner sanctum of the pub, the risk is far greater than in the open space of a football stadium.

There are questions to be asked about coronavirus’ impact on football in the immediate-term; that much is patently clear. But not in debating the ramifications of a truncated season, or the topics of self-interest like Liverpool’s title-in-waiting or Leeds United’s umpteenth promotion push. In time, those dilemmas will resolve themselves. No; at least for now, concern in the football world should be devoted to Arteta and Hudson-Odoi, to the countless others in the game tested positive, identified publicly or not, for whom the disease may not terminal, but at least presents the mental hurdles of isolation and deprivation, laced with the chronic fear of inadvertently inflicting it on those around them.

Spare a thought, too, for the pubs, bars and eateries so heavily dependent on the frenzied surge of customers before and after games, who will now have their future thrown into indefinite jeopardy. Not to mention the hotels, the taxi drivers, the journalists and scouts working freelance; just a select few of others who have had a primary source of income curtailed. And what for the clubs further down the food chain, for whom matchday revenue is imperative to make ends meet? In a season which has already seen financial negligence strike the nail into Bury’s coffin, an eleventh-hour takeover save Bolton Wanderers from the same fate, and a litany of other EFL clubs fail to pay wages on time, the virus could yet precipitate as much chaos off the field as on and around it. After all, poverty kills, too.

Future Of Bury Football Club In The Balance
Bury were expelled from the EFL in August - coronavirus could put other clubs at risk of the same fate
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Even when this is over, and we can all watch footballs move again in constant, dizzying, 24-hour, year-long, endless fashion, there will still likely be a feeling of an underlying paradigm shift, that we are not quite watching the same sport in the same way as previously, even if our thirst for it will not have diminished. For many, going cold turkey will only strengthen their love for the game upon its return, albeit with a healthy dose of perspective.

It’s not that football doesn’t matter. At once it is a livelihood, an occupation, a means to stay afloat, a form of escapism from the demons of the outside world. That’s enough for it to hold a lot of value to a lot of people. It’s just that, compared to what will be a very real worry for some, if not all of us, of looking into the eyes of loved ones for a final time, the fulfilment of a fixture list simply pales into total insignificance. That much, we should never lose sight of.