COVID-19 SPECIAL: Sporting Life

Empty stadiums remind us of the value of crowds

No piece of paper, no proffered pen. No outstretched boyish hand, no fervent girlish plea. No one on Saturday was asking, "Ein Autogramm bitte". Football has begun in the Bundesliga without sport's most fundamental ritual. The autograph, please.

This is sport in the Covid-19 world, a fan-less kickabout in empty shells of stadiums. No spectators - or even a rationed number - means skill without adequate witnesses, it is victory absent of applause. Sport earns its major revenue from television, but the player is connected only to those he can see.

To the boy that rugby star Sonny Bill Williams gave his boots to after a game. To the jerks and the faithful. To even the man who shouted to Steffi Graf once: "Will you marry me?" To which she replied: "How much money do you have?"

Like so much during this pandemic, we see more clearly the beauty of everyday things once they have been taken away. In sport, it is the crowd, once an animated glue of people, now the arch enemy of social distancing. Even if Liverpool are awarded the Premier League title, mourned a friend, there will be no parade.

In a South Korean baseball stadium some seats were filled with cut-outs of fans and it was cute, but it doesn't quite qualify as home advantage. Cardboard can't heckle, not like Yabba, the Australian cricket fan of the early 1900s, who insulted with style. "I wish you were a statue," he yelled at a visiting batsman, "and I were a pigeon."

In the Sydney Cricket Ground, there is a statue of Yabba and it is an unusual bronze tribute to a tribe that is infrequently saluted. Statues of athletes are common, but at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, home to baseball's Blue Jays, are two rare sets of sculptures. They consist of diverse figures, including one eating a hot dog, another cheering, a third jeering, a fourth with a child on his shoulders. The sculptures are by Michael Snow and they are known as The Audience.

In Germany, yesterday, there is none. Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park is Germany's largest stadium and the voices of players and coaches echo in the emptiness. Steel and concrete don't scare rivals, only people do. The match has the feel of a practice game and it tells you the substantial function of the crowd. "It gives," says former Indian cricket captain Rahul Dravid, "a match meaning".

Dortmund-Schalke is like watching a battle film with the sound off. Players adapt, says Dravid, because they are professionals. "They will deal with it, they will give it their best." But, he adds, "the player is also a performer" which in the dictionary is described as "a person who entertains an audience". Artistry is always in search of noisy validation.

Even athletes who endeavour to ignore the crowd, like shooters and divers who try to encase themselves in a membrane of concentration, remember cheers. Deep below the surface after a dive, Mark Lee is unconcerned about applause and yet he adds: "After my last dive is when I look to the crowd, not just to listen to them but to acknowledge them". Their presence is a gift to him.

The memories that players carry of sport are often infused with sound. Former Australian cricketer Adam Gilchrist wrote of the "non-stop drumming of plastic bottles on the roof of our changing room" at an Indian stadium. Tim Mayotte, tennis player in the 1980s, told New York Tennis Magazine that during a Davis Cup tie in Mexico City, "every time I'd miss a serve, the mariachi band would strike up a song".

Fans bring a tension to stadiums, they provoke, and Michael Jordan knew that with a few baskets they could be silenced. Teams will wear the crowd's boos one day and then on another day will turn their enthusiasm into energy.


Bayern Munich fans holding up banners before their team's match against Hoffenheim at the PreZero Arena in Sinsheim on Feb 29. Yesterday, the same stadium was devoid of spectators when Hoffenheim hosted Hertha Berlin. PHOTO: REUTERS

Now football feels like an abandoned church and yet it will endure for people have an abiding faith in sport. They will watch from afar and give thanks just for "live" sport.

Hariss Harun remembers a 2013 Malaysia Cup quarter-final where they were battered by a hostile crowd in the first leg in Pahang. The LionsXII drew 1-1 and were tired but quietly confident about the home leg. "We felt unbeatable all season at Jalan Besar Stadium," he says. "And our home crowd was electric that night and literally carried us through." They won 3-0.

The best sport requires proximity between watcher and watched, both of them joined in strange ways. In 1987, Pat Cash walked on the shoulders of strangers to his Players' Box after winning Wimbledon and at the Masters it is the roar of fans, surfing the wind through the pines, that tell golfers that Tiger Woods is charging.

Now football feels like an abandoned church and yet it will endure for people have an abiding faith in sport. They will watch from afar and give thanks just for "live" sport. They will cheer at home even if they can't be heard.

And in a house somewhere, a girl will hold on to her autograph book and wait. She is a fan and one day she will return to the ground. She is, after all, sport's signature.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 17, 2020, with the headline 'Empty stadiums remind us of the value of crowds'. Subscribe