On Carrow Road sit two middle-aged Norwich fans. One of them seems to be going through some personal crisis. He appears reserved, withdrawn, melancholic, even absent. He doesn’t even fully celebrate the team’s goals. He stretches his arms semi-sitting, threatening to get up, but without finishing doing so. Next to him sits another fan who is more cheerful and talkative. It is clear that they are not friends off the field, but they have that particular friendship that is forged in the stands. Between play and play, the apparently happy man slips in comments about the life that happens away from the stadium: “I hope the week went well,” “it was worth it just for this,” he points out. In the last game he gives his teammate his green and yellow scarf. We’re at the end of the video and the screen suddenly goes dark and a message flashes that says: “Sometimes it can be obvious when someone is struggling.” The more reserved man then returns to the stadium alone and places the scarf on his friend’s empty seat: “But sometimes, the signs are harder to detect.” And the video ends.
This is the argument of a campaign that Norwich published on its social networks last week, during World Mental Health Day. It is a video of just two minutes, but with a powerful message that has been echoed by millions of people. Because in 21st century Britain, as in so many other countries, unwanted loneliness is killing people. Not directly, of course, but insidiously through its effect on mental health. The Norwich video shows that mental health and unwanted loneliness can be explained through football and, most importantly, it shows that loneliness can also be combated through football if you are able to pick up the signs.
When Friday arrives, many people face a vast emotional desert to navigate until work returns to its routine. During Saturdays and Sundays there is a very strong discrepancy between them and the outside world. It is not only that feeling of loneliness, a murderous emotion, but also exclusion. There is no space in bars, restaurants, streets or parks full of group and couple plans. So for some of those people the stadium is the place to socialize on the weekends and feel at least momentary contact; to feel part of something, of a group, of a community, of a tribe. “Football has importance, and a certain transcendence, so we focus on it: from the collective, such as politics and history, to strictly personal matters such as alienation, rage or loneliness,” wrote Enric González.
It makes sense that football triumphed in its origins among the working class of England and among humble communities. Because, probably, for many of those 19th century workers there was nothing more stimulating than love for their team. The possibility of collective escape was in itself victory. The legendary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly defined football as a kind of socialism, not so much in its political sense, but in that of solidarity. Did Shankly know—783 games as manager of the reds— that much more than a game is played in the stands. There human relationships are built and, in some way, the social fabric is expanded. At the end of the day, the essence of humanity is connection, even if it comes from watching 22 billionaire guys hit a ball.
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