WHO calls for action as Europe coronavirus cases rise
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Though league football resumed in the summer of 2020, fans were banned from watching their team live; instead, having to watch matches from their sofas without the camaraderie surrounding the usual match day experience that English fans know all too well.
“Huge gap” in fans’ lives.
Do not be mistaken, with arguably the worst global health crisis in one hundred years, there is far greater to be concerned about than not being able to attend a live football match or any sporting event for that matter.
However, it is not simply just a football match for some. It is an escape from reality, convention and a different way of life. When that is taken away, avid fans are left with a gaping hole in their life with a yearning for it to be filled again. Football is certainly the biggest of the smallest things.
The yearning to connect with friends in person, either for celebration, or consolation is something that football fans craved for months – and it took a toll on many people’s mental health.
Football – and all sports for that matter – is not purely about the chanting, the debate, or the arguments; it is about the togetherness of fans, players and coaching staff. Whilst the players and staff were able to mix in their own “bubble”, fans could not bounce up and down to the atmosphere inside stadiums like they were so used to – and it left its mark.
“There’s a huge gap in many people’s lives”, Martin Evans, season-ticket holder at Championship side Cardiff City Football Club, told express.co.uk.
He said that “the buzz and feeling of jumping up and down in the Canton stand when we score, the joyous occasions of winning matches and just being there in person holds a far bigger place in our hearts than just watching the boys on the television”.
Evans highlighted the mental strain on fans not attending games as he himself had mental health issues in the past: “These games don’t just have an economical impact on the club. The clubs need to come together and find a way to connect with fans off the pitch that are struggling at home and do not have the joy of watching their team live at the weekend anymore.”
A recent study on National Football League Fans – carried out by the live sport disability equality and inclusion charity Level Playing Field – said that 62 percent of disabled fans’ wellbeing would be “hugely impacted” if they were unable to watch live sport next season.
Furthermore, 43 percent say the hiatus has had a “significant” impact on their mental health.
Participants of the study point to the deprivation of social interaction and the escapism that football provides as contributing factors to recent increases in stress and anxiety.
“Football can take you out of your reality. If you take that away, that adrenaline boost, you may have to deal with something that is at the back of your mind. People might not be able to deal with that,” explains ex-player and mental health in football expert Kevin George.
But this is not just about the fans, George told express.co.uk: “‘Some will struggle. A lot of footballers [and fans] are lonely and don’t have family, or have come from broken homes. Without that dopamine hit, or that coping mechanism, players [and fans] may go elsewhere to find that hit.”
More than just a game.
Football does not exist in a vacuum – the loss of live sport is deeply felt by many as it escalates into a myriad of other health complications.
Whilst fans like Martin Evans struggled at home without live football, and the impacts of the pandemic taking its toll, EFL clubs were left to come up with new initiatives to support local communities, and fans like Evans.
“As a club, we have worked hard to support the local community’s mental health,” says Gareth Willsher, head of communications at League One’s Northampton Town Football Club.
“The manager, his staff and the players called supporters to have a chat, check on their welfare and to lift spirits. This work was very well received and we are sure to have helped hundreds of supporters. They have also taken part in Zoom meetings and coaching sessions with our multi disability and downs syndrome squads,” he told express.co.uk.
When asked about the impact of the pandemic on mental health, and how clubs can support not just fans, but everyone in the local community who is struggling at home, Willsher said that “[Northampton Town’s] Community Trust have been leading a Keep Calm and Cobbler On initiative, which involved a phone call based befriending service for older and vulnerable people in the community, and a free mental health first aid hotline for teachers in our partner schools to support and provide them with coping strategies.”
One Northampton Town fan, Lee Clarke, told express.co.uk that the initiative “was a significant step forward in helping our community and those who are vulnerable and need help”, saying that other clubs should “follow suit”.
In a confusing and unprecedented time, it is vital to remember those who may feel the most in limbo: children. Being the next generation of sports men and women “kids need to feel busy and active”,’ said Clarke, “in a time where boredom may get the better of us”.
To help with this, Northampton Town FC “offered [their] spare coaching staff to attend for additional hours in partner schools free of charge and delivered our Fit Cobblers (men’s health) programme digitally using Google hangouts for the participants to check in and continue the healthy lifestyle programme on a weekly basis.”
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