Soccer Is a Habit. But Habits Can Be Broken.


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Something I heard, a few months ago, has been on my mind this week. It was something that I think I knew, deep down, but had never quite put into words. It was not so much a new thought as a thought I had never quite had.

You will, I think, remember the story. Last summer, after more than a century of existence, Bury’s soccer team had to shutter its doors. It became, for a few days, something of a cause célèbre: proof of the inequity of soccer’s ecosystem; proof of the vulnerability of historic clubs to ill-intentioned owners; proof that something was wrong.

There was for a while something of a media circus outside Bury’s gates, but once the courts had ruled and the die had been cast, the journalists started to drift away. A few weeks later, a photograph emerged on social media. It was of Michael Curtis, the groundskeeper, proudly cutting the field at Gigg Lane, the team’s empty stadium, as he had done for decades.

It struck me as a perfect encapsulation of the affection we have for, and the pride we have in, our sports teams, what they mean to us — we would care for them, even if they never played again. So I drove the few miles from Manchester, early one morning, to go and find him. He opened the door, an eyebrow raised. (People, generally, find it harder to say no in person.) After a while, he invited me in.

A handful of his colleagues were there. We talked for a couple of hours: about what kept them coming back, about what they had been through, about what Bury meant to them, and about their hopes for the future. Fans were busy trying to organize a so-called “phoenix” club, a replacement for Bury, one that might return soccer to Gigg Lane.

They all hoped that would happen, too, but Martin Kirkby, the man who ran the bar at the stadium, was circumspect. As he saw it, no matter how soon a new club could be founded or how high up in English soccer’s league pyramid it might be placed, the damage was done. Soccer — going to soccer games, watching soccer, talking about soccer — was a habit. And, sadly, quickly, “people’s habits change.”

Sports are never just sports. They are industries and economies, businesses and brands, as I wrote last week. They are — to borrow a phrase from an American investor in soccer — time-decayed media content: they are entertainment vehicles and distractions and escapes, soap operas that captivate us. They are cultural phenomena and they are common languages. They are a reflection of the world in which they exist.

Over the next few months, as our worlds shrink and contract to a single home, or a single room, we will be granted a new perspective on all of that. We will realize, in a world without sports, how much color and noise they provide to the pageantry of life. Even as we focus on what is truly significant — the safety and well-being of our families, our communities; having enough to eat, having a place to live — we will see, in their absence, what a presence sports are.

Most of all, though, Kirkby was right: sports are a habit. They give to our lives a rhythm that we barely notice. Saturday is game day; Tuesday and Wednesday nights in spring are Champions League nights; August is when the season starts again; May is when the prizes are handed out, and then we all get chance to rest, reflect and, eventually, wonder when it is all coming back.

The journey to the stadium; the rush to be in the ground or the bar or at home in time for kickoff; the people you see, the ones you watch with, the ones you play alongside; the routines and the superstitions and the displacement activity; surreptitiously checking your phone for the scores; watching “Match of the Day”; thirstily drinking in transfer news; feverishly scrolling through Twitter.

The longer this hiatus goes on, though, the more of that falls away, the more of us drift away. Routines switch, interests wane. Perhaps, as more of the world enters lockdown, other activities will not be available, but who knows? Maybe will we live more of our lives online. Maybe we will emerge more accustomed to isolation, more suspicious of large crowds. Maybe we will cherish those scraps of family time all the more.

There is an economic impact, too. Soccer’s whole business model relies on broadcasters paying vast sums to show the games. But in the next few months, first advertisers and then subscribers will start to fall away. In a climate of widespread financial uncertainty, not all of them will be able to come back.

That is not to say that coronavirus marks the end of soccer. Not at all. But it will, I suspect, have a lasting impact, one that we cannot yet discern. For most of us, going back will become more appealing as the days and weeks and months go on.

And when we do, most of us will thrill at just how green a field is, just how vast a stadium, just how beautiful a goal can be. The arc of the ball, the sound of the net, the split second of silence before an eruption of joy and despair. Most of us will go back, as soon as we can, as soon as it is safe. But some will not. Soccer is a habit, and people’s habits change.

So, What Now?

Over the last few days, it has become standard practice for sports journalists and commentators to adopt a sincere impression and intone that, in the grand scheme of things, sports do not really matter. The fact that so many people were moved to write reminded me that, actually, they do matter, to a lot of people, and that’s OK.

They don’t matter as much as some other things, obviously. They are nobody’s priority at this point, but they do matter: as industries and economies, but also as something we invest an inordinate — and some might say unhealthy — amount of time in. More than one thing can be important. Not all things have to be of equal importance.

So even as we all have bigger issues to consider and greater problems to face, I think we will keep this newsletter going. In fact, to some extent, because of those issues and those problems, we will keep this newsletter going.

At times it will deal with an element or an effect of the crisis we are all facing. For all of us who love sports, how this will affect sports may not be a priority, but it is not an irrelevance. But at other times maybe it will drift away from it, and give you chance to allow your mind a little bit of a break from more serious matters.

What form that will take can be, in part, up to you. If there are issues you’d like me to explore, or questions you’ve always had, or some itch you would like to be scratched, now is the time. We might play with the format a little — maybe some weeks there will be a mailbag, maybe some weeks a list of things to read or watch. If the lockdowns last long enough, I have to warn you that I will become saccharine and nostalgic. But for now all suggestions are welcome. The usual address applies: [email protected]

In Case You Missed It

This week has not brought quite as much clarity as anticipated, perhaps, in terms of how soccer will restart when — I suppose, sadly, there should be an if here, too — the coronavirus pandemic is under control, but I suspect that’s the right thing to do. Decisions do not need to be made yet; UEFA’s announcement that this summer’s European Championship will instead be held next June and July illustrates why.

There are places where they are still playing matches: as I write this, Belarus and Turkey in Europe and parts of South America are continuing with their seasons, though Mexico has finally put a stop to games. This does not, it has to be said, seem especially wise.

And I would hope you have all read Tariq Panja’s remarkable visit to the players and staff of Wuhan Zall, the team from the city at the center of the outbreak, who spent six weeks stranded in Marbella, Spain. They were planning to return last weekend, back to China — though not Wuhan — because it felt safer there, now, than Spain.


There was something of a glut in correspondence last week. Much of it, of course, was in response to the coronavirus crisis, and I found Edward Baker’s message particularly poignant. “Soccer, as a sport, cannot be counted among life’s essentials,” he wrote. “But I am put in mind of my favorite book, by one of my favorite baseball writers, Thomas Boswell.”

Boswell, Edward explains, wrote a collection of essays called “Why Time Begins on Opening Day.” It is because only then, he said, that “life is once again restored to us in its fullness, and in its absence the feeling of diminution is inescapable.” The stopping of sports, he wrote, proves Boswell “got it right: time has stopped.”

But there is, as David Cleary put it, very clearly a reassuring desire to use “pedantry as a distraction in these worrying times,” so there were a LOT of emails about the soccer/football schism. “U.S. English often preserves older forms of usage which the British then ironically deplore as innovations,” David wrote. “Soccer, I believe, originated in Britain in the very earliest days of football, derived from ‘Assoc’, short for association, as opposed to rugby, football. That’s where the Americans got it from.”

This is my understanding of it, too: David’s theory, which has some merit, is that Britain stopped using “soccer” once we realized it was much, much better than rugby (I’m paraphrasing), but it stuck in the United States. “Americans are actually using an older British word rather than inventing an ugly new one,” he wrote.

On the same topic: Rod Auyang pointed out that Matt Busby, no less, used “soccer” in the title of his autobiography. Manuel Buchwald suggested that the problem with soccer is that it only occurs in English, while using football is much more universally understandable. And Andrew Ashton made not one, but two excellent points.

“I wonder if the use of soccer began to fade as a result of British television starting to screen the N.F.L. in the early 1980s,” he wrote. “Perhaps, there was an unwitting move to reclaim the name football for the British game.” He also suggested that “having football and soccer as interchangeable terms” may have been a newspaper thing, a form of elegant variation, rather than a common usage. That seems convincing, too.

Thanks, too, to Paul Knights, who wrote in to ask why Americans refer to sports teams in the singular and British people do so in the plural. That, Paul, is just the sort of subject we need for several months of self-isolation.

That’s all for this week. I hope you, and all your families, are staying safe and well in these strange times. Even with no sports to talk about, I’ll be Twitter. Set Piece Menu is available wherever you get your podcasts; we’ll keep bickering and debating, whatever the situation. And now may be a good time to send friends here.

Have a good weekend.



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