In the Bundesliga, the top flight of German football (or soccer, depending on your location), players don’t tend to wear the No 12 jersey. Instead that particular number is reserved for “the crowd”, the unofficial 12th man, which lends unflinching commitment, energy and support week in, week out, through success and failure, thick and thin. Every professional sportsperson will acknowledge the influence of vociferous spectators on on-field performances. The German tradition of assigning a jersey to the fans just makes the arrangement more formal.
However since the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world this year, the 12th man has been forced to stay at home. Although matches have been allowed to restart in most organised leagues, the seats surrounding the pitches remain mostly empty. Cavernous arenas that once rocked and throbbed with tens of thousands of fans are merely vacant shells. Robbed of atmosphere, we’re left with football, but not as we once knew it.
GOALS! GOALS! GOALS!
In common with many competitions, England’s Premier League halted abruptly towards the end of the 2019-2020 season, with 92 matches yet to be played. Games restarted in mid-June and the season concluded quickly, but the knock-on effect was that the 2020-21 season, which ordinarily would have started in August, didn’t get under way until September 12.
But once it did, it came back with a bang.
According to BBC analysis, the first 38 games of the 2020-21 season yielded 144 goals, 40 more than in the same number of games the previous season. There were an average of 3.79 goals per game, which was the highest average since 1930.
These matches included some freakish results: the defending champions Liverpool lost 7-2 at Aston Villa, a team that only just avoided relegation the year previously. Meanwhile Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester United 6-1 at United’s home, Old Trafford. With the so-called “Theatre of Dreams” empty, United were torn apart by the visiting Londoners.The BBC quizzed the Everton defender Michael Keane as to why there were now so many goals, and he suggested the absence of fans could be a contributing factor. “It might give the strikers a bit more freedom to try things they perhaps wouldn’t if they felt there was a bit more pressure there with the fans,” Keane said.
Other people involved with the game have said that a crowd increases adrenaline, which in turn helps with concentration — a skill required particularly among defenders to help them play with sufficient intensity to keep world-class attackers at bay.
“Fans open up your senses, increase the intensity of your muscular reaction,” said Carlos Carvalhal, a former manager of Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City, who now manages Braga in Portugal. “It has a huge influence in the head of players, I would say even 20 percent.”
A sports psychologist named Michael Caulfield agreed. “Football is a game based on threat, fear, and that has disappeared with no fans in the stadium,” Caulfied told the BBC.
One might expect empty stadiums to affect the home team in particular, especially since it’s well known that home teams tend to be most favoured in football matches. But that hunch has proven to be mostly untrue, at least according to number-crunching done by The World Game website. In an attempt to measure whether home advantage had been impacted, the site looked at Premier League matches played between June and October 2020, all of which were behind closed doors, and compared them with every previous match in the Premier League.
Though the data set was necessarily smaller in post-lockdown football (130 matches compared with 10,794 pre-lockdown), the win rate among home teams was all but identical. In post lockdown football, home teams won 46.2 percent of matches, compared with 45.4 percent before that.
But that’s not all. According to the World Game analysis, the biggest statistical change can be seen when considering victories for the away team. In pre-lockdown football, where fans were permitted, away teams won only 27.6 percent of matches. However, with stadiums empty, that rate went up to 36.9 percent.
(These two stats can co-exist because of a marked decrease in the number of drawn matches. Only 17.7 percent of games in the analysed data set, up to October 8, 2020, were drawn, compared with 26.1 percent before the lockdown.)
One of the reasons football remains such a popular game worldwide is its ability to unite communities and draw people together, even as ticket prices have soared and teams have become global brands. If you live near a football ground in the UK, that almost always ends up being your team. With very few exceptions, teams don’t tend to switch cities like the franchises in American sports. Teams are rooted in communities, and following a football team is a commitment for life.It follows that for many people football is at the very heart of their social calendar. Some football fans follow their team with an ardour that makes spouses jealous, arranging their entire lives around the fixture list. It’s perhaps not surprising that taking all of this away, and taking it away so suddenly, can have an adverse impact on the well-being of some supporters. When coupled with amateur sports also being cancelled, robbing fans of the ability to either watch or play football, many organisations feared a mental health crisis.
“Football can take you out of your reality,” Kevin George, an ex-pro who is now a writer, and an expert in mental health in football, told Sky Sports. “If you take that away, that adrenaline boost, you may have to deal with something that is at the back of your mind. People might not be able to deal with that.”
George was talking specifically about the footballers themselves, but the same applies to the fans.
“I think (the sense of) community and friendships in following your club are important,” a Southend United season-ticket holder Jack Lawrence told the BBC. “Come Saturday you forget everything that’s going on in your life and just support your team for 90 minutes. It’s so important for people’s mental health, which is why it’s important we get stadiums open as soon as possible.”
John Gibbons, Head of Partnerships at the Anfield Wrap podcast, talked to Football Critic on the subject. “It might be ‘only football’ but you invest so much of yourself into it that there will naturally be a void whoever you support,” Gibbons told the website. “It is part of people’s identity that has been taken away indefinitely. At best this will create unease.
“Like many of us going to the football has got me through some tough times and my football team, and the people I watch football with, have been there when I’ve needed them most. Now they won’t be and that is difficult. We will have to find something to replace it, but in times of recommended isolation and social distance, it is hard to know what that is.”
There are, of course, encouraging signs that fans’ exile will be ending soon. Some leagues are trialling reopening stadiums with reduced capacities, while the potential for a Covid-19 vaccine is increasing. So if you’re missing your football family, hang in there. And remember: get support if you think your mental health is suffering, for whatever reason. Contact any of the following:
THE BOTTOM LINE
You may have read the following quotation a lot over the past few months: “Without fans, football is nothing.” As we sit in our living rooms listening to fake crowd noise dubbed over lacklustre matches, it seems to fit the circumstances quite well.
However, the quotation itself is actually a slight corruption of something uttered by the former Celtic and Scotland manager Jock Stein and, if anything, the full version is even more appropriate. Stein actually said: “Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing.”Money pours into elite level football from all directions, including bucket-loads from TV companies who pay for the rights to screen the matches, as well as the sponsors and advertisers who pay millions to print their names on team shirts, billboards and official merchandise. But gate receipts — ie, money accrued through ticket sales, from those fans at the turnstiles — still accounts for a large chunk of football’s revenue, and it’s even more significant in the lower leagues where the TV cameras don’t appear.
“Football is not the same without attending fans and the football economy is unsustainable without them,” the Premier League said in a statement, released in September. “Last season, Premier League clubs suffered £700m in losses and at present, our national game is losing more than £100m per month. This is starting to have a devastating impact on clubs and their communities.”
If the top flight clubs are suffering, the absence of supporters is even more significant further down the football pyramid. “English football is teetering on the brink of an abyss,” wrote ESPN’s Mark Ogden. “By Christmas, some of the game’s oldest and best-run clubs could be out of business, driven to extinction by the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Ogden goes on to investigate exactly how little money trickles down from the Premier League to the smaller clubs, whose budgets are necessarily far tighter and more dependant on revenue from the turnstile. These clubs are faced with some exceptionally difficult decisions, including whether to test players for Covid-19 when the test kits are expensive and a couple of positive results could result in games being cancelled. Leyton Orient, for example, had to forfeit their scheduled match in the Carabao Cup against Tottenham Hotspur after positive tests among their players. The club lost the £75,000 broadcast fee.
“In the cash-strapped world of the EFL [English Football League], every pound saved is a pound earned,” Ogden writes, and quotes Dave Burgess, the managing director of League One’s Accrington Stanley, who explains that the club could not afford to test its players. “You have to make sure you keep people as safe as possible, but we can’t afford to spend £4,000 a week on testing,” Burgess said. “All of our non-playing staff, myself included, had to get a test [through the NHS, public health system] because we couldn’t afford to do them privately at £125 a go…The courier service wanted £300 to take the tests to the lab to be processed on the same day, but because of the costs, I delivered them myself. It was over 100 miles, but I just jumped in the car and drove down.”
Although the Premier League might feel that it is immune to the hardships elsewhere, the peak of any pyramid depends on the strength of its base. Lower league clubs find and develop young talents; clubs rise and fall through the ranks and will need opponents and matches if they’re on a downswing.
“We are at a real pinch-point,” Mark Catlin, CEO of Portsmouth, told ESPN. “I’m not trying to panic or create hysteria here, but I do think there will be a huge domino effect when one or two clubs go down. Others won’t be able to fulfil their fixtures, and pretty soon those who are left will wonder what is the point of carrying on.”
The question might be less when will fans be allowed back, but more will there be any football for them to watch?