By Ade Ojeikere
The European leagues are in full swing with the resumption of the Barclays English League as the clincher to show the persuasive power of soccer and how it belongs to the people.
During the league’s 100-day hiatus, lovers of the beautiful game were left on the lurch, with many not knowing what to replace it with.
Of course, supporters are confined to their homes by the Covid-19 pandemic which made matter more cumbersome for soccer faithful to comprehend.
So much was speculated about how the matches would be played, the big question being the place of the fans and their importance to teams’ victory, especially with the current league leaders, Liverpool FC, and their vociferous fans.
Playing at Anfield used to be a tough challenge for teams and coaches without strong character. Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho enjoyed taking their squads (Manchester United and Chelsea) there to upset the Reds.
So, when the fans had to be excluded from games, a lot of posers were raised bordering on how the stadia would look like without them.
The structure of stadia in Europe are such that entry and exit points are controlled to shut out uninvited fans. What pundits worried about was how the owners would simulate robots to cheer the players during matches. Of course, robots can’t replace the fans who show a lot of emotions.
Nobody was expecting robots to cry like some fans do when their teams lose. Nobody expected despondent fans who sit alone at the stands after defeats to be replicated by robots. But what kept followers on their feet was how the robots would be arranged.
The players weren’t fooled. The television coverage did little to show what happened at the stands as coverage was reduced to activities of players and officials on the pitch.
It was absurd but it served the purpose. Beside, the oddities at match venues were missing – the cat calls, the false whistling at closing stages (which raised the tempo of the games and adrenalin of fans).
Manchester United’s last ditch wins and draws last season were induced by the fans who kept urging the players on. Now will Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium, for instance, be dreaded by other teams knowing that no fan will be on the stand?
We missed the animals which strayed onto the pitch to cause a stir, with the fans enjoying the fun, as ushers struggle to catch them.
Robots couldn’t produce such fun. Many haven’t forgotten when Watford’s M’Baye Niang rescued a tiny bird which had found its way onto the pitch in a match against Manchester City in 2017. The Hornets got thumped 5-0 that day.
How about the birds on the pitch or those which perched on top of the cross bars? Bird on the pitch! A little bird had to be gently escorted off the pitch by two of Spain’s World Cup stars – Gerard Pique and Isco – both had to pick up their little feathered friend and take him to safety before their game with Iran.
Football fans spend a lifetime hoping to play on the pitch at Manchester City; one squirrel actually managed it when it beat the security network.
But, unfortunately for the squirrel, it wasn’t allowed to stay to watch the game. Ground staff had to escort the furry fella off the pitch before the start of the Carabao Cup Fourth Round match between Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Etihad Stadium. Football is truly a spectacle.
A cat ran on the pitch in a match between Liverpool and Tottenham back in 2012. Supporters quickly saw the funny side, and a Twitter account for the cat was instantly created, amassing over 30,000 followers in just a few hours.
Can you imagine Oyinbo? Naija go say na witch, ‘kill am, burn am! The club said the cat bore a striking resemblance to unofficial 80’s mascot Moglet, a cat adopted by ground staff after it was found outside. Like the reds would say ‘’you will never walk alone’’.
The unifying factor of soccer is seen when unknown people hug and celebrate together each time their team wins.
Not forgetting all manner of attires worn by the fans to typify the essence of such games, especially the derbies where the towns are divided into blue (for Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool) and red (for Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton).
The fans trooping into the stadia is missing in different shades of clubs’ jersey, more so the clownish types of tops. Mufflers of clubs sewn together before such fixtures tell the story that the game belongs to the people and not robots.
No disrespect to the destructive urchins who stay in the mood for games after guzzling beers and spirits, but such drunken fans’ misdemeanour pour odium on the game which, sometimes, nosedives into fracases of violent scenes with lives and properties destroyed.
The security outfits in this Covid-19 era have done their jobs of policing the venues very well. They must be having a peaceful time with the yoyos, hoodlums and roughnecks held back at home.
However, watching Wednesday’s game between Liverpool and Crystal Palace, especially when television rights owners showed where Reds’ fans converged quaffing beer while celebrating each of the four Liverpool goals, simply meant that the battlefields have been relocated to the bars and social centres.
Of course, these centres are used to such chaotic settings and must have their master plan to stem the tide if it eventually boils over.
The police have distinguished themselves, raising the alarm where required and proffer suggestions to resolve certain posers surrounding games.
For instance, the police listed next Thursday’s tie between Manchester City and Liverpool at the Etihad as one of the six high risk matches. the police directed that these matches should be played on neutral ground.
But Manchester City Council’s safety advisory group met on Thursday and concluded there were ‘no objections’ to the fixture taking place at City’s home ground, as exclusively revealed by Sportsmail.
‘’The Council’s Safety Advisory Group (SAG) for the Etihad Stadium met this morning to review the upcoming fixture between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC,’ a statement from Manchester City Council read.
‘’Following the most recent round of Premier League fixtures which have all taken place behind closed doors, the SAG has signalled it has no objections to the above fixture taking place at the Etihad Stadium as planned at 8.15pm, Thursday July 2.
As with all other Premier League matches this fixture will take place behind closed doors, with no fans present, ‘’ according to Daily Mail on Thursday.
What made the European leagues stand out was the television coverage, obviously the reason the game restarted.
There were a few slips but the bigger picture was that the fans had some relief sitting at home of going to joints to watch the closing stages of the leagues.
The police’s fears about the safety of Etihad to host such a top-of-the-table cracker has been abated with Liverpool coming to Manchester as the 2019/2020 Barclays English Premier League champions.
Nothing can be more befitting for new champions to be given guard of honour at the home ground of the dethroned champions – Manchester City.
However, the Premier League still need to approve the guard of honour due to new protocols enforced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Aston Villa, Brighton, Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea and Newcastle are all set to congratulate Liverpool before their matches as the season enters the final game weeks.
Interestingly, everyone has credited this Liverpool’s feat to the club’s manager Klopp who has now won four trophies at Anfield since arriving in 2015.
‘’I called my family 10 seconds before the final whistle,’’ Klopp revealed in a press conference. ‘’I told them I loved them and they said they loved me. That was a really nice moment.
‘’I was never sure it would happen, but I never doubted it. It’s incredible. We were good four years ago, really good three years ago, unbelievable last season, and this season is absolutely exceptional – second to none.
‘’I still want to live for 30 or 40 years, I’m not interested in a statue. You don’t have to compare me with these iconic figures.
The last 13 months were pretty special for us. It is an incredible time in my life, to be honest. I couldn’t be more thankful to be part of it. And we will not stop. ‘’
Ade Ojeikere is an award-winning Sports Editor
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