Football without fans is… better?

The sight of matches in empty stadiums has become the new normal – are we actually tuning in for the football now?

Dortmund

“Football without fans is nothing.”

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Jock Stein’s famous quote lives on to this day deployed as a unified cry to bring power back to the people, a dangling threat against elite owners in ivory towers warning that the industry is built on fans, if they leave, the house of cards will implode.

Of course, Stein remains correct. Ultimately businesses crumble without customers, and football is not immune to that, but as a watchable sport, 2020 is probing us all to question why we tune in for games in the first place.

Football without fans is a present, literal reality. In the space of two months, the nation has gone from flat-out rejection of football behind closed doors to simply accepting it as the norm, as record viewing figures for the Bundesliga on BT Sport can attest to, and that’s the aspect of Stein’s claim we’re going to hone in on.

Among the initial complaints against football in empty arenas: “It’ll kill the spectacle, the atmosphere will vanish, it’s not the same” but what are we actually missing?

Well, we’re missing droves of kids encouraged by adults in a sign-making contest to snaffle a players’ shirts at the end. We’re missing hordes of adults acting likes kids, seizing their moment to withhold a ball or fire off some #LAD #banter when an opposition player strolls to the touchline. We’re missing tedious renditions of chants questioning a referee’s aerobic capabilities of performing his duty.

Football League ball

As far as I can tell, there are still 11 players taking on 11 others, the goal frames remain rectangular and the rulebook remains in tact. Football in lockdown could be the purest form of the beautiful game, in an entirely sporting sense.

It’s at this point I must pause to state that watching football, live and raw, has been greatly missed since the pandemic struck. I will always, always advocate attending local teams – both great and small, at home or away – and yes, the lack of emotion spilling down from the stands is missed. But from an armchair point of view, we have a brief window of time where we can soak up the natural entertainment of the core sport, we can soak it up on another level, without distraction.

The Bundesliga is left with only raw materials, players and a ball, we have little else to focus on, and I’ve found myself doing just that, concentrating on the sport being played. I feel more connected to the actual match. Without a sideshow to get lost in, I feel more inclined to watch the fluid formations and on-field tactical tweaks, I concentrate more on how the game is played, I notice – and wholly appreciate – the darting runs of unsung Dortmund right-back Achraf Hakimi because my eyes have nothing else to focus on.

The gossip, rifts, narratives and transfer news can often overwhelm the game of football itself, but a stripped-back matchday feels somewhat pleasant – a showcase of talent without the need to glam it up. Perhaps it’s the fact that lockdown football feels unfamiliar that it feels like less of a ‘disengage brain’ popcorn watch without fans, but that forces those with wandering minds to keep their eyes on the ball.

I certainly won’t be sad to see fans pour back into stadiums around the nation, of course not. I’ll be one of them! But detractors of the behind-closed-doors approach need to ask themselves what they really want from a TV game. We have an unprecedented chance here to watch the football, purely for the football.

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