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Footy's not as fun without the fans

The return of live sports has resulted in some gorgeous goals, but we miss the fans. This proverbial house is not a home without them
Thu, Aug 20, 2020

On that sweet, distant day when football fans are allowed back into the stadiums – if that day ever dawns – please, please, please can they do so en masse? I want to see them happy cheek by happy jowl, all violating each other's personal space like a gigantic tin of polyamorous sardines. The return must be a wild, Bacchanalian Triumph: a milestone of the post-Covidian era.

Because I cannot bear the thought of a limp, anxious half-return, in which the stands are lightly sprinkled with lonesome souls nibbling listlessly on their masks. Of course, that is what we will see. Most football clubs cannot wait for the vaccine rollout. They need to flog a few tickets, and pronto.

The thing is, it's been depressing enough watching the players themselves scattered like human flotsam across the stands above the bench. Sometimes, for a couple of seconds, I forget that the whole pandemic ever happened and think: 'Ag shame, why is poor Lacazette sitting all alone like that? Are his teammates bullying him? The bastards!' And then: 'Oh. Yes. That virus thingy.'

Some lucky viewers were able to hear a fellow Chelsea defender wailing 'OH, ZOOOOUMA!', even before the Arsenal striker dispatched his finish

Thanks largely to the innovation of canned crowd noise, I've been able to adapt tolerably well to the spectacle of fan-less football. Lots of us are so desperate to cosplay happier times that we're all too happy to suspend our disbelief. And when the broadcasters do allow a bit of stadium audio into the mix, it's also cool to hear the plasticky thwack of boot on ball, or the howl of a disintegrating coach, or the yelp of a player commentating in real time.

At the instant that Aubameyang darted to the left of Kurt Zouma to score his FA Cup winner, defying Zouma's very reasonable expectation that he would move the other way to finish with his trusty right foot, some lucky viewers were able to hear a fellow Chelsea defender wailing "OH, ZOOOOUMA!", even before the Arsenal striker dispatched his finish.

There's been plenty of speculation about whether the eerie stadiums have improved the standard of play – by liberating players from the capricious emotional torment that used to radiate from the stands like the outbursts of 50 000 tiger moms. It's hard to tell. Umpteen wonderful goals have been scored, but that's par for the course. It's definitely true that coaches have been able to coach non-stop from the sidelines, using audible words instead of cryptic gesticulations. Also, players seem to be now less inclined to dive, in the absence of a partisan home audience to amplify the pressure on referees.

But hell, it's been weird. And fundamentally, inescapably wrong. Like everyone else, I miss everyone else. This time has been a distressing lesson in gratitude. And when the fans return, I will cherish sport more profoundly than ever before.