Commentary

Please spare us from games behind closed doors

If the government ordered that a Taylor Swift  concert was shut to the public due to health concerns, would the singer still go ahead with the performance? It seems unlikely, even if she streamed the concert free so that disappointed ticket-holders could watch her strut and sing in a deserted arena. The point of a concert is obviously that people get to experience the music live -- the singing along, seeing the artistes in the flesh, and the shared feeling of joy with the fans around you. In what way, then, is Juventus any different to Taylor Swift?

Watching a feed of Juventus vs. Inter Milan in an empty stadium at the weekend seemed to bring home the inherent pointlessness of sport. Namely, it's only the presence of the fans that really give our games any purpose at all. Take out the supporters and, as the commentators pointed out, you're left with nothing but a training ground scrimmage. Upping the sensitivity of the boom mikes to make every touch of the ball sound like a dramatic collision only served to highlight the surrounding echo and emptiness.

Although the game itself seemed to suffer no loss of quality, the commentators lapsed into musing about the space around them, talking right through a long range shot from Inter's Marcelo Brozovic that prompted a fine save from Wojciech Szczesny. They reported that although the venue was empty, there was plenty of noise coming from the two benches. Ah, so that explained the low-level hysteria -- there was me thinking they'd miked up the stadium daycare.

Meanwhile, the instructions from the benches were "nothing really revealing" -- mainly the players being told to react quicker and run faster. So all that gesticulating, hollering, and jumping up and down from the coaches that you thought was communicating nuances of sophisticated tactical nous, was just the Serie A variation on what the clipboard-wielding U-9 rec team team dad in his chinos, sandals and white socks does every Saturday morning to pump up Logan, Bradley and Chuck Junior.

Sleepy and indifferent, I switched over at halftime (score: 0-0) to Real Betis against Real Madrid in LaLiga, where fans are not yet barred. Shortly after, the Brazilian Sidnei put Betis ahead with a plosive strike. A slow motion replay showed the team jumping on the surrounding fence to celebrate with the home fans, whose expressions of disbelief and ecstasy (Such a goal! Against such an opponent! And we were here to experience it!) summed up why humans invest so much time, cash and energy to attend sporting events. Because, very occasionally, it's actually worth our while, and when it's worth our while then it's really worth our while.

Back at Juve for the second half, where the camera operators did their best not to show us the empty stands, Inter's reserve goalkeeper Daniele Padelli managed to get himself a straight red card for something he yelled from the bench. He walked off with a bemused expression, probably thinking that he screams insults at the referee every week, but no one can usually hear him because of the noise of the crowd. Juve's two goals were followed by close-ups of the players in raptures with the home bench (without the requisite one meter of distance between rejoicing individuals), again concealing the void beyond.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera thought it was right for the games to go ahead behind closed doors in order to help Italians through the current stressed times (even though the games are not available on free-to-air TV). In contrast, the president of the players' union, Damiano Tommasi, demanded that Serie A be canceled, while others have suggested that play be suspended for a month, as in Switzerland. Both courses of action, though, would then raise the question of compensating broadcasters who have paid for television rights, and that's not a topic that league bosses are keen to negotiate.

Playing games behind closed doors is also being discussed in Germany, where panic buying of groceries has not at all been offset by people staying away from soccer stadiums. As in Italy, the Bundesliga wants to stick to the schedule so that domestic play is finished on time. The season "must finish by mid-May" according to league boss Christian Seifert. To what purpose, though, aside from fulfilling contractual obligations? The point of sport is not to fill in a table of statistics before an arbitrary deadline at any cost, it's to provide spectacle and entertainment before an involved public audience.

Delaying or canceling soccer in the days of the coronavirus are not ideal solutions, but they make the most sense. One solution might be for clubs to complete a delayed domestic season in summer, instead of playing weeks of endless cash-yielding warm-up games. Why should the paying spectators be the only ones inconvenienced, deprived and, in some cases (Juventus, for example), uncompensated? No matter who the players are and how many people are watching at home, professional soccer without fans has no more point than Taylor Swift singing "Blank Space" to a blank place.

13 comments about "Please spare us from games behind closed doors".
  1. Joel Hellenkamp, March 9, 2020 at 5:25 p.m.

    My teammates and I play a couple nights a week. Our wives may occasionally ask how it went. We have no fans. But for the love of the game, it's worth it!

  2. Bob Ashpole, March 9, 2020 at 5:30 p.m.

    I agree with Joel's point. Ian, you are looking at professional soccer, the entertainment industry. Millions of amateur players play every day for the love of the game. Spectators not required.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, March 9, 2020 at 5:31 p.m.

    I want to add that, for many matches, the broadcast audiance is far, far larger than the crowds attending the match. 

  4. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 9, 2020 at 5:44 p.m.

    With all due respect to Joel and his team-mates, the column's not about them, any more than Taylor Swift's pulling power can be compared with the Friday night pub covers band cranking out their version of 'Brown-Eyed Girl'. As Joel's team don't play in front of 40,000 fans every week, I don't expect they miss them not being there. (All respect to their wives, though, for occasionally pretending they're interested in how it went!) And just in case it's still not clear - Juve and inter were not playing for the love of the game, they were playing because Serie A will be terrified of losing some money from tv rights. But the fans who make the effort to go to the stadiums - and provide the atmosphere the main European leagues use as their central marketing propaganda - don't sign those contracts. The clubs and the league do. So why should the fans be the ones to miss out? Suspend the competitions and play the games at a later date.   

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, March 9, 2020 at 6:03 p.m.

    Ian, you have to consider that in the EPL and other leagues, they make more money from broadcast rights and advertising than from gate. What you propose may well violate their contracts.

  6. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 10, 2020 at 2:51 p.m.

    Presumably they have insurance, and presumably the contracts have clauses that deal with possible postponements. It says something about European top level soccer's self-inflated sense of importance that it seems to think the world can't go on without it. Still, you all don't seem to mind watching TV games with no fans and no atmosphere, so enjoy the upcoming raft of empty encounters! 

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, March 10, 2020 at 6:33 p.m.

    Don't think I am not in sympathy with your article, Ian. I am, but it is not realistic to postpone matches or to allow crowds to assemble in areas with community infections. Once there are community infections, the safety of the community outweighs individual freedom of assembly. But there is not justification to order business to cease operations that are not endangering public health.

  8. Alvaro Bettucchi, March 9, 2020 at 9:25 p.m.

    I go every week to see my granddaughter play select soccer.  Fans,, very few, but to me, the mothers and fathers, and the girls that play, it seems like Italy's Serie "A"!  When we watch a pro game, we don't pay attendtion to the fans and the yellig, it's the "beautiful game" that interest us.  The virus is serious business, it's about peoples lives. I'm so proud of Italy, for being in the forefront in this war (yes WAR) and being the leader in trying to stop this virus and still seeking to have entertainment available for its people.

  9. Michael Canny, March 10, 2020 at 1:17 p.m.

    Given the current world situation, this is probably the best that can be done. There's no way to tell how long this whole Corona Virus thing will go on, so postponements are not a good alternative. Niether is the additional mechanism that crowds will provide to the spread of the disease. Sometimes, we just have to be big boys and girls, live with the diappointment, and suck it up.

  10. John Polis, March 10, 2020 at 1:32 p.m.

    A concert performed in front of no one makes no sense. But a professional game that creates an actual won-loss result could still go on in an empty stadium and the result is the same: a win, loss or draw. Additionally, thousands upon thousands can still watch the game on television and follow that result because most of the games are on TV. Taylor Swift comparison nice idea, but actually a false equivalent.

  11. Goal Goal, March 10, 2020 at 1:35 p.m.

    Depends on whether she is a keeper or not.

  12. Kevin Leahy, March 10, 2020 at 5:08 p.m.

    Ironic that the guy who didn't want to go see Messi the other week is complaining about empty stadiums

  13. beautiful game, March 10, 2020 at 6:39 p.m.

     Joel H and those who could care less about professional leagues playing behind closed doors; you guys underestimate the intense spirit of the game for both players and spectators. Players may not hear the crowd during a match, but they feel it. Putting yourselves in that same circumstance is meaningless as no crowd would want to watch you guys play.   Playing behind closed doors is like a wake. 

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