Here we go, here we go, here we rather clankingly and disconnectedly go. And you can’t say there isn’t a bit of an atmosphere. The rain—Manchester rain, Industrial Revolution rain—is lashing down, fuming down, making a bodiless, roaring sound as it hits the empty bowl of the stadium. The players strut, scowl, looking nervous and thespian. Some of them, in this gleaming, gushing emptiness, appear quite altered: heavier, more sorrowful, years older. And stretched desolately across the banks of redundant seats, immense sky-blue awnings bear the legend WE’RE NOT REALLY HERE—a stalwart Manchester City chant, once upon a time, but now, in the absence of anyone to chant it, a piece of flickering poetry.
It’s been more than 100 days since the last soccer ball was kicked, the last nostril cleared, the last obscenity hurled in the English Premier League. Soccer disappeared, like everything else, in a puff of viral smoke. And now it’s back, sort of, as part of the great unlocking. Give the people something, for God’s sake. Yesterday was Project Restart, day one: Manchester City against Arsenal, at the Etihad stadium, City’s home ground. No crowd, only the cameras watching. Players, under the new dispensation, are tested, bar-coded, temperature-checked, board-certified and funneled carefully into the event via conduits of glistening hygiene. Handshakes and spitting are forbidden. At the Etihad, some of the coaching staff wore masks. (Not the managers—City’s Pep Guardiola stared out from under his hood with baleful, Seventh Seal-like intensity.) Before kickoff, the players formed a circle: There was a minute’s silence in memory of COVID-19 victims, then a collective knee taken in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “Our world,” observed NBC’s announcer Arlo White, solemnly and irrefutably, “is a very different place.”