‘It’s like dancing with your sister’, said Luis Enrique, the Spanish national team coach, referring to how it is to play football without spectators. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all sports activities were put on pause, including the football leagues. At present, a few months later, most countries are playing or planning to play again, but this time without spectators. It can be seen as the return to a new normality.
Some see the return of football as an example of the cynical business of sports; clubs are also suffering from the lack of income. For instance, when it was decided to reopen the German league, some Bayern Munich fans stated that ‘Football without fans is nothing’. In a similar vein, a banner at Augsburg’s game against Wolfsburg in mid-May said, ‘Football will survive, your business is sick’. Therefore, fans are both eager for the return of football as well as critical of it. Likewise, football players and coaches share all kinds of emotions. The Argentinean and Manchester City forward Sergio Agüero has raised concern about returning to the field because he is afraid it may affect his young daughter. Other players speak about doing their job, which resembles what can be viewed as a classical bureaucratic excuse, whereas some are simply eager to return. In another example, the Brazilian and Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar Jr asserted that not playing football has made him psychologically unstable. Money over health may not be as black and white. At the very least, many players and coaches honestly believe they may inspire, bring comfort to the wounded and hurt populations, or, at least, entertain and let their audiences worry less for 90 minutes.
I prefer to see the return of football in light of the unifying power of this beautiful game that, throughout history, has brought people together and healed wounds. The British philosopher and Liverpool supporter Simon Critchley writes in his book What We Think About When We Think About Football, ‘The reason why football is so important to many of us is precisely because of the experience of association at its heart and the vivid sense of community it provides… the proper political form of football is socialism.’ Socialism, or the experience of association, refers both to the actual game as well as everything that surrounds football. For example, when football is being played without spectators, as it is at present, it may lend us players, fans and sportswriters a feeling of comradery and togetherness. We, the audience, all share this moment – although differently – just as we share the wins and unfair losses of our favourite teams.
Another fact worth mentioning is that football is not just a game played with our feet; it is both mental and physical. Football is saturated with physical and tactical rituals that give the game its social strength. These rituals include the handshake before the game, the passing of team flags, taking team photos, hugging when a goal is scored, giving a hand to the opponent after a committed fall, and so on. Further, on the pitch, it is the body that thinks. In fact, this is true on the pitch as well as the stands.
To cite another instance, Critchley calls football a ‘working-class ballet’; in this case, just a dance will do, where the players and spectators often resonate or share the rhythm of the game. The spectators move the stands up during the final minutes of the game; they can hardly sit or stand still. A penalty can make the spectators of both sides half-cover their eyes, as though they are watching a horror movie. Similarly, scoring goals can make fans jump up, hug and kiss, or just collapse. When the fans sing together, there is a strong sense of belonging, not only to their team but also the game itself. Football, like life, has a history that the fans become part of; they are thrown into this particular part of human history that is now changing – with no spectators – but still makes us feel that belongingness.
During the last week of May, the best league in Denmark, Superligaen, opened with the recorded sounds of fans playing on speakers, something similar to canned laughter. Further, one stadium put up a giant screen, 40-meters long and three-meters high, to stream videos of fans watching through Zoom. Other stadiums have filled up the empty seats with cardboard figures wearing the right jerseys and colours.
Recently, in an interview with Adidas, Lionel Messi said that playing football without spectators ‘was downright spooky’. I am unsure he will find the recorded sounds or cardboard figures less spooky.
As an accurate image of the new normality, is the fact that football without spectators appears to be like dancing with your sister (or brother) and even ’spooky’ because it does not feel like the real thing?
In an article published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the former German football player and German national team coach Franz Beckenbauer compared the new situation with training. ‘The moment has arrived for the champions of training’, he said. The point is that the support or pressure from fans activates the adrenalin; it can make the opponents stressed and motivate the home team, just as it can help a team not to lose its concentration or give up. We have all seen, perhaps even experienced, how fans can energise their team, as if they were charging them up with Duracell batteries.
Will football without spectators make teams with historical and legendary stadiums less invincible? Would Barcelona have won 6–1 against PSG or the Parisians have been less intimated and played without as much nervousness if they had played without almost 100,000 spectators at Camp Nou? Would Barcelona have lost to Liverpool if Anfield was full of cardboard figures and canned singing?
The real, physical support affects the teams – it is like a dance, but not any kind of dance. It is one where something is at stake, but sometimes, the support is not enough. The supporters can also end up animating the opponents. For example, when Liverpool lost to Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 first leg, their coach Jürgen Klopp said, “Emotions are important. Tonight, they were obviously completely on the side of Atletico, but I am really looking forward to the second leg”, further adding, “We speak from time to time about the power of Anfield and the power a stadium can have and tonight you saw that. It’s half-time and we’re 1–0 down. The second half will be played in our stadium and they will feel it”.
Atletico Madrid didn’t feel the fabled Anfield power; instead, they won, while bringing the COVID-19 virus to England as well. Still, there is something intimidating about certain stadiums and their fans. Borussia Dortmund’s stadium is famous for its ‘Yellow Wall’, which is the largest free-standing grandstand in Europe with a capacity of 25,000 spectators. Of course, 25,000 cardboard figures will be impressive, although I doubt it will have the same effect.
Carl von Clausewitz who wrote a classical work named On War knew that the longing for honour and fame was a powerful motivator – even worth battling for. Knowing this, some teams may become less motivated to win against Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu, Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena, or Manchester United at Old Trafford if the stadiums are empty. Maybe the outcome of playing football without spectators will put both teams on equal footing. For this reason, I also think that the Spanish coach Enrique nailed it with his comparison between dancing with your sister and football. Even when you dance with your sister, it still requires that you dance together, follow the rhythm of the music and rules of the dance. It may feel different, especially in the beginning. However, as the music progresses, so does the possibility of entering the flow of the dance. Indeed, it may be a kind of awkward training atmosphere, but we all also know how professional players, who are elite athletes, not only have a clear interest in winning but also intense fear, even hatred, of failing. Football players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, and Zlatan Ibrahimović are known for their hatred of losing, even during training.
The former Spanish national team coach Vincente del Bosque commented that “Players must be told to be practical and to go out and play with all the intensity in the world. Whoever comes out thinking that people are not seeing it, will lose. And don’t be fooled! There will be a lot of people watching those games! So many!”
Perhaps football without spectators does not really exist. There is always someone watching, not only because football is a business but also as so many of us cannot help looking when we see someone doing things with a football.