Substitute empty tables for stadiums and Marius’ words ring true. Empty chairs at empty grounds are all that can be seen regardless of whether there is a game being played or not. Where once the voices of thousands were heard now there is nothing and much like the survivor’s guilt felt by the young French revolutionary, what kind of world will be out there when the stands are filled once more? Admittedly a sombre take but one that I feel reflects the mood worldwide at the moment. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot to be happy about. So maybe for escapism or maybe simply for something to do, I invite you to join me in imagining a footballing world where the doors remain closed.
The German Bundesliga became the first major league to restart games in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic with the promise of more to follow suit. June 11th is the preliminary restart date for La Liga with the Premier League expected to return the following week on June 17th. It would seem ill advised to take these dates as gospel when everything it still up-in-arms.
I sat down on the 16th of May with a beer and a notepad ready to comment on the flow or tactical nuance I noticed in both the Revierderby (Dortmund/Schalke) and in Leipzig who hosted Freiburg. I started to write about Schalke’s boisterous number 8: Suat Serdar or how Erling Haaland is not even overhyped he just genuinely is that good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I was watching didn’t seem real.
Whether it was Dortmund’s eerie socially-distant celebration (an image the history books will surely reflect on) or being able to hear each individual player bellowing for the ball I couldn’t decide. As a side note, these games behind closed doors seem an excellent coaching opportunity. Allowing youngsters to see how elite footballers communicate with each other on the pitch and incorporate it into their own games.
(Erling Braut Haaland celebrates the first goal back since lockdown)
I eventually realised the answer was staring me in the face – the stadium was empty.
I had seen games be played behind closed doors before, namely in European clashes when stadium bans are often imposed following incidents of racial abuse of players by fans. The concept of an empty stadium was not one that was entirely alien but this time it felt different.
I felt it was because this time is wasn’t a one-off Europa league tie, it was a huge footballing moment. The return of live games after a nearly 3-month hiatus. The mind wondered what this match would have looked like under normal circumstances. Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’ would be present long before the match began and would be bouncing long after the final whistle blew. Each well-timed tackle or moment of magic would swallow individual cheers and spit them out as the voice of the terraces. Football, by its very nature, brings people together.
But instead of such scenes, the rows on rows of empty seats served as a stark reminder of the times we are living in.
What is the notion of a derby without the fans? I felt myself wondering how invested the modern player is in the idea of a local derby. Fewer and fewer players rising through the ranks at academies end up playing for the first team. For every Trent Alexander-Arnold there is a Jordan Rossiter. Does this mean players are less invested in hating their local rivals as so few of the starting XI grew up supporting the club and feeding into the derby-day fever?
Part of what makes derbys so entertaining is the atmosphere. From the first pint on match day, the mood is bubbling everywhere. All it takes is one good performance and one set of fans is given bragging rights till the teams eventually meet again. All of this derby frenzy is peddled by the fans. But what about when there are no fans? How do teams respond?
A few weeks have passed since I wrote the initial draft for this piece and we have somewhat of an answer now. Relatively poorly. Another high-profile derby occurred behind closed doors with the Merseyside derby taking place on the 21st June and ending 0-0.
This historic fixture had only finished 0-0 on 4 of the last 25 occasions or 16% (worldfootball.net) indicating that maybe the lack of fans played a part in the normally feisty fixture culminating in more of a cagey affair.
The Revierderby ended up being a walk in the park for an imperious Dortmund side who strolled to a 4-0 victory. Their ‘would-be’ bitter rivals capitulated with ease. In fact, they never once seemed up for it, but this is symptomatic of their season as whole.
There is no guarantee on when fans will be present at matches again and at the moment pictures of large gatherings either seem like relics of a bygone age or some rose-tinted future none of us can yet imagine. But it’s true that their impact (or lack thereof) is being palpably felt.