By Anders Firing Lunde
Translated by Jeremy Crump
Empty stands threaten to make football boring. That’s no surprise to prolific novelist and seasoned football aficionado Dag Solstad, while Irish football journalist Stephen Glennon believes that football is at a fork in the road.
“The only job for the home fans,” says the author Dag Solstad of football crowds, “is to win the match for the home team.”
But what happens now that football is being played without a crowd? The major football leagues have started up again in Germany, Spain and England after a break of several months due to the corona virus, but with no crowds in the stands. The seats are covered with extra advertisements instead. If you watch the games on TV, there is a deafening silence unless you choose to turn on the artificial crowd noise which some TV channels offer. Even though commentators and experts are trying to cover football as though everything is back to normal, there is a growing uneasy feeling among many football-watchers that several of the spectatorless matches have been insufferably boring. That doesn’t surprise Dag Solstad.
“In a leisure society, it’s a miracle that football’s fundamental tedium has survived and become more popular,” he says. “Football is not exciting. Handball is much more exciting. In football you might see only one goal in 90 minutes. Who wants to waste their time on something like that?”
Together with Jon Michelet, Solstad wrote five books about the World Cup between 1982 and 1998. They wrote about Italia 90, a competition characterised by defensive football, red cards and few goals. That competition is now considered to be the most boring World Cup of all time.
“I have been predicting football’s imminent death since 1990. I thought at that time ‘How on earth can young people be fascinated by this when they haven’t grown up with the kind of football that I used to watch?’ I have been completely wrong. Interest has just grown and grown. I don’t make any predictions about football nowadays,” says Solstad.
“It’s a very sad thought”
Football’s inherent dullness has also struck the Irish journalist and football writer Stephen Glennon in the last few weeks.
“Football has become like a sort of chess”, he says. “Of course, it’s interesting for people who really care about tactics, people who feel good when they see inverted wingbacks run up the field and so on, but for most people, football without spectators is alienating.”
Glennon used to publish No Dice, a magazine about the culture of international football, and attributes his own interest in the game to the atmosphere in the stadium.
“When I think back to the moments when I fell in love with football, it’s not the players’ skills that I think about but the passion in their faces when they scored important goals, when the team celebrated together and screamed at the crowd. If the fans go wild, the players go wild too.”
Now there are also restrictions on how the players can celebrate.
“The players’ celebrations are subdued – at best they bump elbows – so that football seems to be stripped of any spontaneous passion. If I was watching football for the first time now, I might well not be captivated. That’s a very sad thought,” he says.
“Sometimes my attention wanders when I am watching football. I pick up my phone, I start talking to my wife. But then I hear the roar of the crowd and at once I have to know what has happened. Football is made up of emotions which ebb and flow. The noise of the crowd gives you signals about what is happening on the pitch and everyone watching shares in a collective experience, which is one of the best things about football. That experience isn’t there now.”
The commentators and pundits, who clearly have a product to sell, relate to the games as normal. But does their enthusiasm seem forced?
“In the football podcasts which I listen to, and the football journalism which I read, people are trying to find words to describe this new reality. But these are people who don’t have money invested in football as a product. The commentators and pundits on the other hand try to pretend that everything is normal and that the football that you are paying for is still worth the money. They have to carry on with this self-deception for as long as they can”
Glennon finds that people don’t care as much about the return of football as the footballing elite thinks.
“Now if we get the choice between going to the park, as we can at last, or stay in to watch Crystal Palace play Norwich – well, we’ll choose to relax in the park.”
What are people actually cheering for?
Dag Solstad hasn’t watched much of the football that’s been played in the last few weeks, but he got to see a controversial incident in one of the matches in Germany. At the end of May, the league leaders, Bayern Munich, were playing the challengers, Borussia Dortmund, with the young Norwegian striker Erling Braut Haaland.
“I noticed the Bundesliga, where this Norwegian 19-year-old is shooting and scoring. Everyone on the TV was shouting ‘penalty!’ but there was no crowd noise. That’s what I noticed,“ says Solstad.
What is left of football when it is only a TV sport?
“The current arrangements are just for the time being, and of course I support them. But in fact, football has been a TV sport for a long time. The great triumph of football is that the USA has never got hold of it. All sport in America is TV sport, the rhythm of television determines everything, for example how many seconds people will watch a particular camera shot.”
But that is what it’s like in football now. Drinks breaks take place in the middle of the matches, and these short breaks are filled with adverts.
“That’s capitalism. I just challenge people to oppose capitalism.”
With empty stadiums, football also loses the local dimension. We are left with the players, who generally come from all over the world, and shirts which are covered with advertisements for big companies. What are we really cheering for now?
“You may well ask. Apart from Rosenborg, which has at least managed to keep its identification with the Trondheim region, other teams, like Haugesund, have achieved success with players from elsewhere. Almost all teams have this problem. It is difficult to imagine that there can be a relationship to the players like the one I had in my childhood with the people who played for Sandefjord Ballklubb. Thorbjørn Svenssen [a defender for Sandefjord Ballklubb and Norway’s most-capped player until Jon Arne Riise broke the record – ed.] worked behind the counter in an ironmongers. That doesn’t happen now.”
Euro 2020 should have been taking place this summer but has been postponed until next year. Do you miss the Euros?
“No, I forgot about them a long time ago. The World Cup is the big one. The Euros are ok, but it’s a B-level competition. But football in the Olympics is the dumbest.”
Dirty, ill-smelling men
When Europe was at its most locked-down and the Euros were postponed, the Irish journalist Stephen Glennon and a small group of European writers had an idea. They decided to fill the gap with an alternative, fictional competition, Uefo, in which the writers would make up the results and match reports from the group stages to the final, which took place on 12 July. The reports of the imaginary matches are at uefo202.com. Iceland, for example were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the last match in group F. Mímír Kristjánsson wrote the report on 24 June.
“When we got the idea, we thought that there wouldn’t be any football now, that people would be desperate in the absence of Euro2020, and that Uefo would be really big,” says Glennon. “But we were overwhelmed by the restart of the German, Spanish and English leagues.”
I have to admit that I really enjoyed the match between Liverpool and Crystal Palace in the English league. Each of the four goals they scored was good in its own way and gave pleasure as only football can. I forgot the artificial, delayed rejoicing from ‘the fans’ and the commentators’ forced enthusiasm. Should I embrace this feeling of pleasure?
“The goals were really fantastic and varied, and they summed up almost everything which is good about this Liverpool team. So of course you should embrace the feeling if you can. But it’s difficult not to think about the 50,000 Liverpool fans who would have been there to see it live. Wouldn’t that have made it really special?”
At the same time, Glennon says that he is an extremist, one of those who think that football shouldn’t have restarted before the grounds could be full again. The clubs are now considering letting fans back in as soon as late summer.
“50,000 uninhibited people, shouting, singing and spitting everywhere. I think a lot of people will be nervous about going back. In any case, I hope that the reopening will be done cautiously”, says Glennon, who thinks that it is obvious that the main reason the leagues have restarted is because the TV channels have paid millions to show football and the clubs depend on that income.
Glennon believes that football is at a fork in the road.
“It will be interesting to see which road football eventually decides to take. Perhaps we will see the supporters getting more power again, since everyone will realise that football is nothing without fans. Or it could go the opposite way. The clubs will realise that they don’t need supporters or the small clubs in the lower leagues,” he says.
“I can picture the leaders of the big clubs imagining a world in which they don’t have to look after 50,000 drunks every Saturday, a world in which they keep the grounds closed, get income from TV broadcasts and pump out artificial crowd noise. That way they can rake in the money without dealing with dirty, ill-smelling men, which is all part of the match-day experience.”
Copyright © Morgenbladet & Anders Firing Lunde 2020
Engl. transl. © idrottsforum.org & Jeremy Crump 2020