"Soccer... Without Fans?"



by Jonathan Kim

An idea that could become well cemented in the coming months





Esquire


Should soccer be played behind closed doors? Leagues across the world have already introduced the idea of soccer matches played without the presence of fans. The Italian government announced that Serie A, the top soccer Italian league, would be played in empty stadiums starting March 4th, 2020. However, a few days after all the teams in Serie A played one game week, the government changed their decision and suspended the league indefinitely, which started the wave of suspensions from other leagues. Many viewers and fans of Champions League, the most prestigious European football competition, watched matches that were behind closed doors including Valencia vs Atalanta and Borussia Dortmund vs Paris Saint-Germain.


Other leagues and competitions, such as the Europa League, also held a few games in an empty stadium; however, the majority of leagues suspended all of their games indefinitely as long as the pandemic pressed on before any chances for soccer matches without fans to occur. The Premier League and UEFA both suspended all of their respective competitions on March 13 while La Liga, the top Spanish soccer league, had already discontinued their league games the day before. Suddenly, the whole soccer world has halted to an unprecedented stop, and it has now been over a month since a top professional league soccer game has been played. Some desperately hope the game continues no matter the method while others are cautionary and skeptical of the idea that matches could possibly be played behind closed doors in the future. It may simply seem as if waiting until the COVID-19 pandemic is completely eradicated and 100% safe to allow matches with thousands of fans is most logical, but soccer matches must resume as soon as health officials deem them safe to do so without fans in the stadium.


Fans have become an important part of the game as tens of thousands of loyal, passionate supporters come watch and root for their team. Viewers watching teams from any top-flight league can hear the chants and songs unique to specific teams, and it is fascinating to watch a mass group of strangers come and connect together through these matches. Throughout the years, fans have become integrated as a key part of the game, which is why home-field advantage appears to play a large part in team success in top competitions. Many supporters especially feel that the matches played behind closed doors would affect the players because they would not feel support from their fans, and the atmosphere would decrease the quality of performance from the home team.


However, no evidence alludes to the dip in performance for home teams without their fans. In 1980, West Ham United were forced to play in an empty stadium at home because of fans rioting, yet the home team won that game 3-0. A similar situation occurred in 1982 with Aston Villa, yet the crowd less team won 3-1 against Besiktas. Clearly, there is not enough evidence to make a solid case that there is a disadvantage for home teams without any fans. Furthermore, the players do not necessarily need fans to keep the quality and intensity of the game. Yes, fans do help their home team raise the passion and emotion of the game, but they do not necessarily help the players win the game. For instance, teams that are near relegation in the league or are performing poorly may face immense pressure and negativity from their fans, which causes the team to lose composure and focus on the actual gameplay. Furthermore, this intensity and energy that fans help build can be from the players themselves and their teammates. Since soccer fundamentally has many players on the field compared to other sports, the players can reach the same level of intensity themselves without the help of fans.


Aside from the matches themselves, leagues around the world have to think about the long term sustainability of their clubs. Postponing games further than needed or suspending the rest of the season would cause teams to lose millions of money right out of their pocket. The lost revenue from television rights would cause billions of dollars in losses for top-flight leagues, and brands related to these soccer teams would lose a vast amount of money without any games occurring. Economically, leagues can not afford to wait longer to start playing again because of the immense drops in revenue, which will force teams such as Juventus to sell some of their key players to gain some money back.


Looking ahead at the future, an array of questions arises if the soccer world waits until games are played with the crowd, which would not have any solid solutions. The postponement to play games with crowds would be months later than if games were set to play in empty stadiums. Of course, the games without fans would only occur after the governments in their respective countries allow this. These games may take multiple weeks or even a few months to continue, but the timeline to come back would be much faster than if the matches allowed fans in the stadium.


Tens of thousands of fans meeting in a crowded arena would definitely be disallowed even when the COVID-19 is essentially eradicated because of precautions and risk that the virus can rise back through such interactions. Complications would arise with leagues about cancelling the season or crowning a champion, and many of these issues would introduce controversy and backlash from the soccer world.


Leagues would also have to address the issues with promotions and relegations, as no solutions would satisfy all teams unless the rest of the season would be played out. Furthermore, the multitude of different competitions such as Champions League as well as smaller tournaments like the FA Cup would cause plenty of chaos and issues with scheduling between different leagues.


In general, during these unprecedented times, people need an outlet to unwind and relieve stress from their lives. Even though many are stuck at home, they can still enjoy a nice, beautiful game of soccer staying inside.