Football without fans is…still really good, actually. The Bundesliga’s return on Saturday was a joyous occasion. Slightly strange to begin with? Yes. Not as perfect as our previous version of normality? Obviously.
But this was still football. It was not remotely like a training exercise or pre-season friendly, either. There was no perceptible lack of intensity or competitive edge with the games being played in almost entirely empty stadiums, and with players searching for sharpness on their first time back after such a lengthy hiatus. Quality was evident in bucket-loads, too.
Whether it be Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke, Fortuna Düsseldorf vs Paderborn or Eintracht Frankfurt vs Borussia Mönchengladbach, it still involved 22 professional footballers on a pitch, trying their best to win three points. Some games provided better value entertainment than others, but that’s always the case with any league at any level in normal circumstances.
The clichéd phrase “football without fans is nothing” could hardly be further from the truth. It is still something . Living in the elite bubble of the Premier League, Champions League and almost 24/7 rolling coverage of the sport at the absolute highest level across Europe’s biggest leagues, it can be easy to overlook the fact that this is only one very specific, globalized and highly commercialized version of football.
Sunday league football, for instance, is played up and down the country – with equivalents all around the world – largely without fans in attendance at all. Spectators will predominantly be comprised of family, friends and casual passers-by, but there won’t be swathes of ‘fans’ at these games as such. This grassroots version of football is anything but worthless to those players, coaches and communities for whom it brings a huge amount of mental and physical benefits, despite not being ticketed events.
By the same token, the lack of fans in the Signal Iduna Park on Saturday afternoon did not render the Revierderby a pointless exercise, but quite the opposite. Of course, it wasn’t the same without the famed Yellow Wall being decked out with thousands of passionate supporters and the noise they generate rippling across the stadium.
Yet you could still appreciate the pure brilliance of the football being played (albeit, not so much from Schalke). The first goal was a perfect case in point: an incisive forward pass from Łukasz Piszczek, a magnificent back-heel flick from Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard’s pin-point cross, and Erling Haaland’s sumptuous first-time finish. The satisfying sound of the ball nesting in the back of the net, and a proper celebration to follow, as well. If you can’t take some degree of pleasure in that, then what exactly are you in it for?
We all know it lacks the atmosphere and emotion of the fully fledged thing, but that just isn’t a possibility in the present circumstances, and won’t be for some time yet. If football with fans is 10 and no football at all is a big fat zero, then where does this adapted version fit on the scale? Somewhere around a seven, perhaps.
Complaining about it being ‘soulless’ achieves nothing, because for football to emerge the other side of this crisis without clubs literally ceasing to exist due to financial collapse, these temporary compromises are a necessity. The consequences of not playing until a vaccine are unimaginably worse. Saying “there should be no football until fans can attend” is almost like saying “I won’t eat anything until I can have my favourite food again, even though it won’t be available for many months”.
Should the Premier League be able to follow the Bundesliga’s lead and return next month, of course it will be a shame that Liverpool won’t have the opportunity to secure the title in front of their own supporters – but again, there is no other viable alternative.
Once it’s back, we’ll be able to revel in the genius of Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino once more, Jordan Henderson dominating the midfield, Virgil van Dijk’s effortless magnificence at the back. That is still worth something, even if the raucous communal celebrations will have to be put on hold until a much later date.
This sanitized, ‘bio-secure’ version of football is a reality we’re all going to have to come to terms with. It isn’t ideal, but that isn’t the primary objective. If it can be a safe, workable solution which enables the game to survive until stadiums can be filled again, then that is ultimately what matters.