WWednesday was a historic night for Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, and on the field, the Queensland Maroons beat the New South Wales Blues 20-14 in the final of the State of Origin rugby league. But it was around the perimeter of the field that the real magic was happening. A packed crowd of 49,155 unmasked fans had gathered, a world record since the start of Covid-19, and, side by side, they roared, arms raised, with volume and zeal typical of the show.
The stadium capacity limit had been raised from 75% to 100% for the game in Queensland, where the borders remain closed, and has been over two months since the last locally transmitted Covid case was detected.
For those of us locked in the Northern Hemisphere, the photos and videos seemed to be transmitted via satellite from an alternate reality, or a mislabeled piece of archive. And for many of us, this disorientation is mixed with deep envy, a longing for the multisensory assault of crowd participation, and a desire to explode like coiled springs from our months of isolation and social distancing, hugging strangers, throwing ourselves to moshpits and sing along with anyone who is singing anything, at all, anywhere. Until then, we remain in the haunting valley that has become our daily lives.
Watching the spooky Premier League theater since it resumed with no fans has felt like watching Lars von Trier’s Dogville stripped of its essence, an experience made even more disjointed by the sharp artifice of crowd booming noise and massive cutouts of cardboard and strange advertisements covering the empty seats. As a supporter of AFC Wimbledon, a team formed from scratch in 2002 by their supporters, when the original Wimbledon FC was uprooted to Milton Keynes by profit-hungry ghouls, I have found myself repeating our unofficial motto: A football club is nothing without its fans. What Covid-19 has taught me is that this is not just a platitude. Unattached from the crowd that justifies their existence, the players and coaching staff are just a group of naked men before the Lord, yelling “Lines of four!” each other at periodic intervals.
People have missed much more important things than soccer games during the pandemic – births, marriages and deaths, including the main one – but there is still a shock at the absence of crowds of strangers in our lives. My team has been without its own soccer field for 29 years, and throughout my adult life, we have sung a song of longing and anger: “Show me the way to Plow Lane, I’m tired and want to go home. ”
When, against all odds, Wimbledon finally returned to Plow Lane, to play its first match at its newly built stadium, on November 3, of course I couldn’t be there, and instead had to log in via a broadcast. . the I follow The feed was buffered for about a quarter of the match, and then the comment was cut off for another 20 minutes, leaving a howling void where our hoarse, delirious voices should have been. I clicked “update” about 300 times; I texted my father, who I should have been watching this truly historic event with, in frustration. I absentmindedly dragged my laptop into the kitchen and washed. The word anticlimax doesn’t do it justice.
Before we can satisfy our elemental longing to meet our fellow fans, comrades, and parishioners in a crowd, there are questions to consider. How long will it be until we can safely return to sporting events, clubs, carnivals, and churches at full capacity? Also, how will we feel when we finally return to the crowd, after what has probably been more than a year of absence? With fear, with enthusiasm or, as I suspect, both at the same time, in great abundance? Many people hate and fear crowds at best; They can trigger everything from mild anxiety to agoraphobia and PTSD. For those of us who love and miss them, much of the emotion is grounded in the same roots as that anxiety – it is the desire to lose a part of ourselves and feel overwhelmed.
Of course, there have been crowds in the UK since March, even if they haven’t had official sanction from their 50,000 happy counterparts in Brisbane. And it’s worth considering why, in the spring and summer of 2020, tens of thousands of people across the country chose to join the crowds, primarily in protests, but also in illegal raves and block parties, despite all the dangers of a fatal pandemic. In fact, why do people join crowds even in normal times? Given the anxiety, the possibility of violence, panic, crushing and confrontation, the loss of control, of peace, of tranquility, the suffocation of our individual agency, the suffocation of our own voice, why do we do it?
I know the answer, because I have also felt the visceral pull of the phantom crowd, throughout the paralyzing isolation of the pandemic. We join them because located there, in the heart of the crowd, while we are struck by noise, subsumed into something much bigger than ourselves, there is something fundamental about what it is to be human. The innate instinct for crowd participation is like a muscle that we haven’t been able to exercise, but that is there anyway and will never burn out.
• Dan Hancox is a freelance journalist and writer. He is the author of Inner City Pressure: Grime’s Story and Kettled Youth, on the 2010 student protests
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.