There was a time when we were wondering if we would ever see live professional Football again. The necessary measures put in place to contain the terrifying transnational spread of Covid-19 in spring forced an immediate and indefinite halt to all organised sporting events. Caught between a rock and a hard place, broadcasters and governing sports bodies pursued a wide array of alternatives in order to keep television viewing figures high and to fulfill their contractual obligations, from repeats of classic Football matches to a first ever gaming 24 Hours of Le Mans race in June.
It would appear that infection rates have slowed – albeit in developed nations that have the resources and infrastructure to fight the disease and to collect accurate data regarding its spread. As a consequence, professional Football has returned – albeit behind closed doors. In pretty much every major league we can think of, your favourite team will have begun its 2020/2021 season without you. This is quite clearly in the name of safety, but with such sporting events as Formula 1 already allowing fans back into the stands (admittedly at a reduced capacity), many invested Football fans are asking why they have not been allowed back in to watch their team yet. If the main concern is safety, why host matches at all?
The hashtag #letfansin is gaining momentum as frustrated Football enthusiasts protest against what they perceive as just another example of the interests of the commercial stakeholders taking priority ahead of the fans who actually attend matches on a regular basis. This blog post has not been written to express an opinion either way, and regardless, you should follow all public guidelines regarding safety so as not to unnecessarily put you and your loved ones at risk. That said, away from the bright lights of the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga, lower tier Football leagues are already allowing fans back into the grounds on match day. Curious to see how a Covid Football match works, we at FBTG strapped on a face mask and took a train to Jerez de la Frontera to see a young friend on the opening day of the season.
Xerez Deportivo FC is a club you should have heard of, but it’s understandable if you haven’t. Founded in only 2013, the new addition to the “Sherry City” Football scene was created by indignant fans who decided they had had enough of Joaquín Morales’ dealings with former La Liga participant Xerez CD. Following 3 relegations in only 5 years and staring administration in the face, the former president sold the historic club to businessman Ricardo García who cleared the club of its outstanding debts and rescued it from the brink of the abyss. This should have been a cause for celebration for the city’s Football fans – but it has not been that simple.
The takeover was announced a matter of days after the band of breakaway xerecistas founded their own club. It was expected that Xerez CD would dissolve at the end of the 2013/2014 season. The RFEF had agreed that their space in the following La Tercera season could be taken by the new fan-owned club. It was therefore a huge blow to the proactive fans involved in the Xerez Deportivo FC project when Morales announced the sale, and subsequent survival, of Xerez CD. With its debts now cleared, the historic club was able to retake its place in the Spanish league – at the expense of the ordinary townsfolk of Jerez involved in the creation of Xerez Deportivo. Within a week of finalising all paperwork to create the entity, they were told there was no place for them. Rather than saying die, these fans stuck two fingers up to Morales and Garcia and decided instead to compete in the 8th tier of Spanish league Football in its inaugural season. Now, after years of toil and patience, Xerez Deportivo FC is competing in La Tercera along with Xerez CD.
Having hopped off the train, I knew my first point of call was to the Estadio Municipal de la Juventud. The city’s second largest Football stadium in terms of capacity hosted pre-season fixtures for Xerez Deportivo FC, and the left-leaning ultras of El Kolectivo Sur (KS91) had painted an anti-racism mural outside the Juventud. However, images circulating social media the week before showed that at least one individual had defaced KS91’s work with racist slogans and insignia as well as with the Xerez CD name in black spray paint. Eager to see the damage, I strolled up to the Juventud only to find that some volunteers most likely from KS91 had fixed the damage done to the mural to make it look as good as new.
I next headed to the club offices and neighbouring clubhouse outside the Chapín. The KS91 ultras were operating the bar; serving drinks and working the door. Nobody was permitted to enter or sit outside without a mask, though some fans were sitting enjoying beers with their masks removed. With a beer in hand, I chatted to some familiar faces and realised that I had made a mistake. The club was only permitted to admit 800 fans into the ground for the day’s game against CD Rota, and all available seats had been reserved for season ticket holders, meaning I could not purchase a ticket for myself. But following a quick discussion with some KS91 members, I was kindly granted media access to the stadium and was eventually able to enjoy the game. It was not a classic match by any stretch of the imagination, but Xerez Deportivo FC won with a single goal in the second half to start the season in the best way possible.
What were the notable differences of a Covid Football match? Besides a pre-kick-off banner promoting the shared fight against racism held by the Xerez Deportivo players (quickly joined by their opposing numbers from Rota), there was no noteworthy difference among the players, the referee and the linesmen, though all team staff in the dugouts were obliged to wear facial masks at all times. The club had asked fans to observe a minute-long round of applause in the 12th minute in honour of all fans unable to attend the first game of the season as a consequence of the additional protective measures put in place. The lower tier of the Chapín was boarded up for no properly explained reason, and a dividing rope barrier stood behind the bar to discourage large crowds forming. Only 1 of 4 tribunes was open to fans, and large stickers had been plastered onto 2 out of every 3 seats. Effectively, all fans sat 2 seats away from each other. Additionally, each attendee had their temperature measured before entering the ground.
The ultras of El Kolectivo Sur had gathered as close to their normal south stand as possible and were doing a remarkable job of social distancing (as much as could be expected). Several flags and 2 drummers were in attendance to at least try and recreate the normal match day experience, but the lower attendance made it somewhat difficult for the capos to get the atmosphere pumping. As best as I can remember, most fans wore their facial masks throughout the game, but as the afternoon wore on, many xerecistas around me embraced each other with zeal after half a year of not having seen each other. The first game of the season is never without the huge thrill and wild belief that anything could happen, and it was difficult for many members of KS91 not to great one another with such warmth that is common in the south of Spain.