The Insufferable Eeriness Of What Goes On Behind Closed Doors

by | May 1, 2020

On the 11th of March, I was sat in front of the television watching a Champions League match. Liverpool were playing Atletico Madrid  that night, but my mind had been on Paris, so I switched that game on. A health crisis had been growing over the previous couple of months about which far from every government had been doing as much as it could. I was thinking about this quite a lot, already. Sport was about to close down.

A couple of days earlier, Paris police had announced that the last sixteen match between PSG and Borussia Dortmund would be played behind closed doors, with the French sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, announcing a few hours later that the games in Ligue Un would be permitted maximum attendances of 1,000 until at least the 15th of April. Italy had suspended all matches at the same time. This was not, despite the ongoing complaints of what was already a diminishing minority, just going to go away. Normal everyday life was about to be suspended.

There were 54,000 people at Anfield that night. We may never know how deadly the decision to play that match turned out to be. There were just a few hundred people inside the Parc des Princes at the same time. Players, staff, officials and administrators, all doing their utmost to put these extraordinary circumstances out of their minds. The show, for this one evening at least, had to go on. PSG won 2-0, overturning a two-one deficit from the first leg. Around 3,000 PSG supporters gathered outside the stadium to celebrate the win. One day, the next round of the tournament will be played. More than seven weeks on, though, no-one knows when this will be.

The concept of matches being played with no supporters in attendance is more familiar to French football supporters than it is to us, and it’s plausible that this familiarity was what led to the PSG supporters turning up outside the stadium that night. It is a fairly regular punishment for crowd disturbances in France, whereas in the UK it’s only really been seen in European competitions, and even hasn’t happened for a very long time.

Three matches spring immediately to mind when this matter comes up, all from the years when the spectre of hooliganism was much closer to home than it feels today. The first came in 1980, when West Ham United were forced to play the second leg of a European Cup Winners Cup match against the Real Madrid reserve team Castilla at an empty Boleyn Ground following disturbances in Spain in the first leg.

Castilla had come from behind to win the match 3-1, but the headlines the following day were made by events off the pitch, both  during and after the match. At least 50 West Ham fans were ejected from the Bernebeu, and post-match violence led to a man being killed when a bus ran over him just outside the ground. UEFA, still mindful of significant trouble caused by English supporters during that summer’s European Championships in Italy, warned before the match what the consequences of violence might be. It didn’t seem to make any difference.

There was talk before the second leg that it might be beamed live into local cinemas, but UEFA prevented that and the reported attendance of just 262 people remains – and will probably forever will – the club’s record lowest. Whilst may have cost the club tens of thousands of pounds in gate receipts, though, it didn’t seem to affect the West Ham team, who won the return leg 5-1 to progress to the next round with a degree of comfort.

Two years later, Aston Villa began their defence of the European Cup under a similar shadow. There had been serious crowd trouble before, during and after their European Cup semi-final against Anderlecht in Brussels the previous season. Anderlecht had asked UEFA to expel Villa from the competition but the punishment handed down was a fine of £14,500 and the stadium closure. Again, the home team didn’t seem to be particularly affected by it all on the pitch. The match was moved to an afternoon kick-off at an empty Villa Park, and the holders won the match 3-1. They went on to play out a goalless draw in the return leg in Istanbul.

This didn’t just happen in England, either. When Celtic lost a bad-tempered European Cup Winners’ Cup first leg 3-1 against Rapid Vienna in 1984, it set in motion a chain of events that led to the club having to play a match the following season behind closed doors. Celtic overturned the deficit to win the second leg 3-0 and tie 4-3 on aggregate (highlights can be seen here), but after two outright assaults on Celtic’s Tommy Burns, missiles rained onto the pitch and, after a Rapid player claimed to have been hit by a missile, the result was overturned and the match was ordered to be replayed at least 150 miles from Glasgow.

The decision caused outrage amount Celtic supporters. Rapid Vienna had claimed that one of their players had been hit by a bottle at first, but later changed their story to it being a “missile” rather than a bottle after television footage showed that a bottle thrown hadn’t actually hit anybody. This, however, didn’t seem to make any difference to UEFA’s decision, and the match had to be replayed at Old Trafford, in Manchester.

This time around, Rapid Vienna won by 1-0 – they would go on to lose that year’s final to Everton in Rotterdam – but again the football took second place to crowd disturbances. The Rapid Vienna goalkeeper was attacked on the pitch by a Celtic supporter in front of the Stretford End during the second half, and another was attacked as the players left the pitch at the end. When Celtic won the Scottish Cup again that season, they would have to play their home match in the first round of the next season’s Cup Winners Cup at an empty Celtic Park.

With the first leg against Atletico Madrid having finished in a 1-1 draw, but with tensions still running high from the previous year’s escapades, a major operation was put in place to prevent any further disruption. Stewards and the police formed a cordon around the stadium (UEFA even considered the stadium car park to be off-limits), whilst all players and officials had to produce tickets in order to gain entrance. The match kicked off at 2.00 in the afternoon, and TV highlights were limited to a few minutes on that evening’s news. Atletico won 2-1 and went on to reach that year’s final. Celtic, meanwhile, estimated that the debacle had cost them £250,000 in lost ticket sales.

Of course, the circumstances surrounding matches being played behind closed doors now are very different to those of more than thirty years ago, but those who believe that matches returning this way in the next few weeks are very mistaken indeed, if they think this will be much like a return to normal. Even if played at neutral venues, there is an eeriness to any match played behind closed doors. Rather than the constant background noise of a crowd, the players and coaches will be clearly audible. Every shout and every whistle will bounce around the stadium. Players may well be affected by it, as might officials.

It is grimly ironic, iat a time when thereh as been a proliferation of “no context” accounts on Twitter. For all concerned, this will be professional football without context. It seems highly unlikely that anyone will consider it a satisfactory experience, even if clubs pipe in crowd noise through their public address systems (as it has been suggested they might), and as supporters and consumers we need to detach ourselves from the idea that the football that does return, whether it’s in a couple of weeks or a couple of months, is going to be anything like what we’re used to. It’ll have to do because it’ll have to do, though, and it may just that this is the way things are for quite a long time.

But even playing matches behind closed doors comes at a risk. It has been estimated that it takes around 300 people to put on a Premier League match, even one with “no-one” in attendance. And the question of what players might think of it all is being dismissed rather too easily by those who just want the football back, no matter what it looks like. It’s barely been a couple of weeks since club owners and the politicians were scoring cheap political points by stating that player – for no ostensible reason – should be taking pay cuts. Now it’s being seriously suggested that they should be pressed back into service like dancing bears in order to keep public spirits up, even if there is a risk to them by even getting involved in it.

No matter what the government says, there is little to suggest that we are past the peak of this virus. If anything, it’s likely that the lockdown has led to it plateauing, and that lowering the infection will be a laborious process. Association football is a contact sport. It cannot be played with true social distancing. It feels as though there is a risk that not reneging on television rights money and satiating the appetite of fans could be prioritised over the well-being of players. If we accept that the risk is above zero, then how far above zero are we, as a society, prepared to go?

It has been suggested that players might have to be quarantined in hotels for weeks or months at a go. What this says about what the whole of football thinks of its players is not particularly flattering. Should we demand that they take this time apart, in this completely sterile lockdown, for weeks? Do we expect them to prioritise football over their health, or the well-being of their families? And we should also bear in mind that it would only take one player contracting the virus and falling seriously ill or worse for the whole house of cards to collapse. Football could easily find itself back to square one, and with its reputation damaged in ways that we can scarcely imagine, right now.

When it comes down to it, it’s difficult to avoid the question of, “is this all really worth it?” That’s a bit of a value-laden way of putting it, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be asked.

It’s a difficult question to have to face up to, because there may not be a vaccine for a year or two. It may not be completely safe to return to football with crowds for longer than most of us are prepared to admit. But that’s the position in which we find ourselves. Pandemics of this nature are thankfully extremely rare. It’s just that the global nature of modern life makes us ill-equipped to deal with this sort of shutdown.

In the UK, the government chose not to follow a policy of testing and contact-tracing. Despite attempts to rewrite history so recent that we all remember it, they almost followed a path towards herd immunity that was negligent in its stupidity and which may have cost tens of thousands of lives. I don’t have an answer to all of this, but perhaps that’s the point. If no-one can see a path to how football can continue at no risk to anyone, then the default position has to be that it cannot continue at all until society has decided, very precisely, what level of risk it is prepared to accept.