A feeling I thought I’d forgotten grips me – giddy, like the clichéd kid on Christmas Eve. For the first time in almost two years, I was walking toward a stadium, with other people, set to take in live sport.
Australia’s biggest football code, the AFL, is often described to an international audience as the lovechild of Gaelic, Rugby, and a little bit of American Football. It was originally designed to keep cricketers fit over winter, but has grown to be one of the most attended in-person sporting leagues in the world.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, the AFL moved to behind-closed-doors for a number of weeks, before returning to small crowds in lesser-hit areas of the country. The AFL’s spiritual home of Melbourne was hit hardest, and did not see matches (let alone crowds) for the duration of the 2020 season. The Premier League equivalent would be Leeds having 50% capacity at Elland Road, while St. James’ Park sits empty and unused.
Australia dragging itself out of lockdowns over the Southern Hemisphere summer (December-February) allowed the AFL to begin season 2021 at 50% capacity, and to increase crowds week-by-week in Australia’s enormous and largely shared stadiums. A few weeks into the season capacity was increased to 75%, and shortly after reached 100% in what was a joyous week where club allegiances were put aside.
I sat among 50,029 other spectators for Geelong vs Hawthorn, Australia’s equivalent to Liverpool vs United, on Easter Monday. Two weeks later, the country paused to reflect on ANZAC Day (a day to commemorate the sacrifices of the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps), capped off with the traditional match between Collingwood and Essendon, which drew an official attendance of 78,113 – the biggest crowd at any live event, worldwide, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In crowds of 50,000 and above, no matter how big the stadium, social distancing becomes difficult, if not impossible. After so long away, I found this experience to be slightly anxiety-inducing, especially after over a year of daily reminders to keep a safe distance from other people.
That said, the overriding emotion of the return of live sport has been one of homecoming, and reconnecting with a part of popular culture intrinsically tied to the fabric of the entire country. As the United Kingdom prepares to ease spectators back to in-person attendance, this will be repeated in the Northern Hemisphere. Only in the very strangest of times would you see Liverpool and United fans, Spurs and Arsenal, Celtic and Rangers, the very fiercest of rivals, entering grounds side-by-side. Truly, these have been the very strangest of times indeed.
Football, (both round-ball and strange far-flung codes) at times has the power to transcend the colour kit you arrive at the ground in, which city your club has travelled from, or what you’d usually think of the fans up the other end. The return of being able to support your club in-person, to walk from the station to the ground, to shout down rows upon rows of people at the patch of turf below, is one of these times.
Football without fans is a hollow shell of the game we know and love, and the future of live sport is still not straightforward. There will be forwards and backwards steps, as there have been here in Australia, most notably after a COVID-19 outbreak in the state of Queensland, where every travelling Brisbane supporter was instructed to leave the ground and isolate mere moments before their game away at Geelong, some 1,741 kilometres (1,082 miles) south.
As crowds slowly but surely begin to be welcomed back to Premier League grounds and EURO2020 lies in waiting (a year later than planned), football is once again on the march.