The return of football was welcome, but there were a few things that were very different without the fans, like dissent. But if that goes, what else might?
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It was about an hour before the kick-off of Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League game against Monaco in 2017 when word came through that something had happened to the home team’s bus. Eventually the scarcely believable news that someone had tried to bomb that bus filtered through, the game was postponed and everyone wandered around for a bit, not really sure of what to do.
Eventually the Monaco players went out onto the Westfalenstadion pitch and had a pseudo training session. This was the Monaco side that contained such an absurd collection players, together for a sadly brief period, that you look back on it now and wonder how they were all in the same team. Bernardo Silva. Fabinho. Thomas Lemar. Benjamin Mendy. Radamel Falcao. Kylian Mbappe.
In that small-sided training game, played between two training goals set up on the halfway line and the edge of the penalty area in the middle of a deserted stadium that is usually among the loudest in Europe, Bernardo picked up the ball, shifted left and around his marker, and pinged it right into the top corner. Simple description doesn’t do justice to the combination of balletic grace and effortless power: it was probably the sort of thing that happens on the training ground all the time, but for an outsider it was special to witness. An intra-squad muck around it might have been, but it felt wrong that a moment of brilliance like that had only been observed by a few bemused journalists trying to work out how to write about a game that never happened.
That sprang to mind on Saturday as Borussia Dortmund methodically took apart Schalke at the same venue, as the Bundesliga returned behind closed doors. Dortmund were so good that it was the sort of performance that deserved an audience, taking advantage of a Schalke side who looked like they were adhering to social distancing advice a little too literally: it’s not supposed to suspend marking, lads. The atmosphere wasn’t dissimilar to that Monaco training session, footballing excellence greeted by echoey whoops from the handful of people in a 81,000 capacity stadium.
Of course, that was just one of the many ways in which this game was weird. Aurally, more than anything: you don’t usually hear the ball being kicked that clearly, or the instructions from the sidelines, or the net being struck with such clarity. That last one was a positive, in fact: there are few more satisfying noises in football than that.
But of the various little oddities about a game played in front of no fans, one of the most interesting was a comparative lack of dissent. The sight of players disputing every single decision made, from the simplest throw-in to the most contentious red card, has become so ubiquitous that you barely notice it anymore. Every offside, foul, free-kick, line call. Even when a ball has very obviously come off a player and gone out of play, they will claim it as their own. It’s all faintly laughable but not even particularly objectionable, the sort of thing you might clack your tongue in slight irritation at, rather than scream in fury. It’s part of the footballing wallpaper, there, but not something really worth remarking on.
Yet like wallpaper, you notice when it isn’t there, because those complaints seemed to be curiously absent in the Dortmund game. Incidents that you would usually expect to inspire spittle-flecked outrage were allowed to pass. In the first-half Erling Haaland smashed the ball into Jonjoe Kenny’s hand in the Schalke area, which resulted in an almost apologetic appeal from Dortmund’s T-2000. It very obviously wasn’t a penalty, as VAR confirmed after the usual interminable wait, but when has that stopped players appealing and arguing before?
Shortly afterwards Haaland was involved in a spot of six-yard box jostling with Jean-Clair Todibo that in a more febrile atmosphere could have resulted in a more intense stramash. Todibo received a jab in the chest that would often see the injured party collapse to the floor as if hit in the heart by a bazooka, but this time he merely stumbled.
Then just before half-time Schalke striker Armine Harit tumbled on the edge of the area, very much in the ‘you’ve seen ‘em given’ category of decision, but on this occasion it was not. Again, under normal circumstances you might expect the wronged party to lose their brains, to howl at the moon about how desperately unfair it all was. As it was Harit just flapped his arms a bit and nobody else seemed particularly bothered.
Maybe this won’t turn out to be representative. Maybe once players get back into the swing of things they will resume their usual schedule of haranguing and complaining. Maybe you’ll see half the Bayern team Roy Keaneing the ref before too long.
But it does suggest that all of this is pretty performative, that players don’t necessarily complain or claim the slightest little thing because they genuinely think they have been wronged, more that it’s a subconscious expression of their commitment to the fans in the stadium. ‘This is how much all of this means to me, watch me whine.’ Take those fans away, and there’s no need to peacock at the officials anymore.
And before anyone welcomes this post-dissent world, it’s worth considering two things. Firstly, if dissent disappears from football then we’re edging towards it becoming more like rugby, where players treat officials like public school masters, calling them sir and generally supplicating themselves. Nobody wants that. And secondly, what else will go if players get used to not reacting to the crowd? Will the intensity of play drop appreciably? Will games become glorified training exercises like the one those Monaco players took part in?
The ‘football without fans is nothing’ mantra is a romantic one, but not really accurate. Plenty of us have hungrily welcomed back the return of a top European league, the comforting familiarity of elite football providing much succour at a time when that is more welcome than ever. Football is still plenty of things without fans, but it’s clearly diminished, and one wonders in what other ways it will become so.
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