Sometimes, especially when it encounters moments of shock and heartbreak, the game feels redundant. 22 athletes and a few officials play out 90 minutes of elite competition in front of thousands. Once that is done, family, friends, players and officials alike go home to their families and continue living their lives. Minimalistic, but that is, in theory, the game we love.
Truthfully, there is much more to it than that. Football offers its fan an escape from the monotony of routine, it offers excitement, memories, constructs friendship and bonds. On top of that, it’s an entertainment industry and business. It creates jobs, revenue and a living for people fortunate to be officially involved in it. The cliché runs true, it is essentially more than just a game. And that’s fine. It’s central to masses of lives. Sport, as an entity, is part of the British culture and we actively choose to embrace its traditions. Once more, that’s OK. We are attached and committed to its existence.
So, what happens when we are forced to put the game into perspective? Ryan Mason’s head injury at Stamford Bridge last week was one of those defining, truly horrendous moments of shock in sport. As the player goes down, quite clearly distressed and in pain, the show must go on. In the moments that Mason was rushed to hospital, Chelsea and Hull played out the entirety of their fixture. The game finished, Chelsea won and the cycle was completed. Players would go home, fans would return to their families and press conferences would be had. But this time, our regular Sunday schedule was interrupted.
By the evening, news had broken that Mason’s condition was much worse than we had anticipated. Even when the player had demonstrably been stretchered off with gas and air, no sense of tragedy truly struck home until the news broke and the football had finished. Once Hull City officially confirmed the severity of the injury, the football community stop for an evening and reflected.
Ryan Mason the footballer was now Ryan Mason the human. His family became central to our thoughts and the football match that had come before was just an obscurity of what now was the most significant piece of news in our day. For just this one moment, we could relate to a footballer and genuinely empathise with those in his life. The story was one of human interest, no longer limited to sport, but devoted to themes of misfortune and potential tragedy. Though life and death are a routine in our life, the football community rallied around someone they had formed a connection to. Our emotional investment to the game transferred seamlessly into a concern for his wellbeing. Fans anxiously waited, apprehensive as to the outcome. Thankfully, the prognosis for Ryan Mason seems positive. Though the outcome may seem distant, people are grateful for his recovery.
It’s not the first that our game and human principles have coincided. I was present at Tottenham vs Bolton in the FA Cup where, out of the blue, Fabrice Muamba collapsed to the ground. As the ground descended into an eerie silence, youngsters watched on as Muamba received CPR from a number of medical staff at each club. The fans, helpless to the situation but eager to demonstrate something, rallied around Muamba in and after the game. As players watched on in apparent despair, the game was abandoned appropriately. The decision was supported by both the players and fans. As the player was ushered off to the London Chest hospital, he was accompanied by his manager, Owen Coyle and club captain, Kevin Davies. No longer were they football professionals, but humans with an obligation to care. As were the doctors, the staff, the players and the fans who aided in his eventual recovery. Competition and sport fell into the shadow of our united worry for Muamba.
When the significance of the game is brought to the fore, we become humans again. Football, as a form of escapism, is perfect way for fans to distract themselves from the realities of life, but the necessity to switch is something that throws us off guard. Sport, unfortunately, has the trouble of encountering tragedy frequently. That said, it can be content in the knowledge that its community will always preserve its human instincts; there are things more important in life.