The sound of elite professional football has never been more egalitarian than it is now, given how closely it resembles the sound of Sunday morning amateurs all over the world.
It is the sound of a game stripped bare, bereft of its wall of noise. It is the sound of players shouting when there's no one watching and no one caring but the players themselves. It is the sound of soccer in public parks, of five-a-side games in local sports centres, of fellas with full-time jobs and mismatched socks and the touch of a JCB.
We're not supposed to hear the professionals shouting at each other. It is an irony of their work that communication with colleagues usually remains private in such an exposed environment. But in the silence of deserted stadiums, their yells and warnings and instructions are bouncing off the concrete caverns. All footballers, great and useless, are equal under Covid-19 - everyone can hear you scream.
The sight of these empty arenas has left a lot of fans with an empty feeling. It's just not the same. But in theory at least, it should be the same. The essence is unchanged. It is still 11 players trying to outmanoeuvre another 11 by manipulating the ball with their feet. They are doing what they have been trained to do in every respect. The wall of noise brought by fans, the colour and emotion, are merely a soup of atmospherics surrounding the contest on the field. But the contest takes place anyway, with or without the special effects. It is an autonomous process, wrapped inside its own bubble, confined to the white lines that mark its borders with the exterior world. Therefore, the game itself is its own reward. It does not need the packaging.
Obviously, that's the purist's point of view, maybe even the puritanical point of view. In practice, the high end of the game has been inseparable from the masses for a hundred years and more. The two entities are interwoven into each other like the wool in a jumper. The game is implanted with the soul of the populace. It can function without it, we've been watching it function without it in Germany, but it is reduced to a technical process without the power of crowds.
Borussia Dortmund versus Bayern Munich last Tuesday evening was basically the game that would decide the Bundesliga title for 2019/20. The standard of play was top quality, by and large. The intrinsic dynamics expected from such a contest were present and correct. But it was a match, not an occasion. Again, a purist might say, so what? The game has its own integrity; it does not need to be an occasion too. But even a match with stakes as high as this seemed diminished by the vacuum in which it was played, as if the silence had infected by osmosis its essential genetic material.
Frustratingly, this is more of an impression than an empirical assertion. One would struggle to point out where the mechanics of the passing, for example, were affected somehow by the lunar atmosphere.
Midway through the second half, BT Sport's match commentator, Paul Dempsey, is prompted by the audible shouts of the players to make an observation to his guest analyst, Owen Hargreaves. "I know it's not football as it's meant to be, Owen, but it is gripping to us bystanders to feel the intensity and hear it. A game of this quality where the ball is being moved around so expertly and so rapidly."
His enthusiasm wasn't entirely convincing. It sounded a tad more like advertorial than editorial. Hargreaves in his reply sounded a bit between two minds. "I think you're right, technically it's been a better game than a couple of weeks previous, boys are moving the ball really well."
And here maybe we get to the nub of it. Yes, the play was technically proficient, but this on its own was not enough, at least not for this viewer. We were missing the sound and the fury, the old sturm und drang of the heaving masses. The players were bringing the skill and technique, but the crowd brings the drama. The crowd turns the stadium into a theatre. And in their absence, the game seemed more like a dress rehearsal than a live performance of the play. But this was clearly a subjective impression because it was not a dress rehearsal, it was a live performance with the destiny of the championship title more or less up for grabs.
Actors, however, will testify that there's a hell of a difference in their energy levels between playing to a packed audience as opposed to an empty house. Similarly, one felt that the players on the field at the Westfalenstadion were missing that essential energy too. And if one can argue at all that there is an actual connection between the two entities, it is here. That the game itself is materially affected because the players are not playing it with the emotional power they borrow from the crowd. Therefore the pace and intensity are compromised, the decision-making is altered, their heart and courage are not quite the same.
The captain of Crystal Palace gave an insight into this relationship in The Times on Friday. Luka Milivojevic is a native of Serbia and a penalty specialist of the highest calibre. He was asked if it would be easier or harder to take spot kicks without a crowd around.
"I haven't taken a penalty in an empty stadium," he replied, "but I believe it's much harder to shoot without people because when you have people in the stadium there is a lot of pressure, but that gives you focus. If you don't have that pressure, maybe you lose your focus, you relax a little bit and then in the end if you miss, nobody will go 'aargh'. There will be no reaction from the crowd."
And then he added a caveat that might be applicable to games in empty stadiums everywhere. "It will be very hard to keep the same quality. People in the stadium, they push you. When you go for a counter-attack, they are screaming, they push you to go forward."
The Premier League is scheduled to resume on Wednesday, June 17. It won't be the same, it can't be the same; we will hear the players' voices echoing in the void there too. Their efforts will be rewarded in real time with the sound of one hand clapping. But if they struggle to be inspired in the silence, maybe they should picture the scenes unfolding in front of televisions across the land, and imagine into life the emotion that was always on tap, seemingly destined to never run dry.
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