Empty football stadiums resound with their histories, argues Uruguayan historian and football fanatic Eduardo Galeano: “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators,” he writes.
His maxim has been tested repeatedly across the world this year, as football has been poleaxed by the pandemic.
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“COVID has massively affected every aspect of football; from how the game is played, to how it is watched – with no fans, or restricted numbers – to the economics of the game,” journalist and author James Montague told Al Jazeera.
As COVID-19 spread rapidly in early 2020, nearly every professional league around the world was suspended.
Fans who were used to organising their lives around the regular rhythm and rituals of football matches were left with the option of rewatching old games or watching the likes of FC Slutsk take on FC Smolevichi-Sti in the Belarus Super League, the only European league to play on by late March.
Euro 2020 – with its particularly pre-pandemic friendly format of 12 host cities across the continent – was postponed to 2021, as was the Copa America.
“It’s been a big x-ray and it’s been a big wake up call,” said sportswriter, broadcaster and academic David Goldblatt.
“On the one hand, [it’s made clear] the deep and profound importance of football to innumerable numbers of people and its reliance as a spectacle and a social phenomenon on a real human crowd, interacting with the thing on the pitch,” he told Al Jazeera.
“And then of course it’s revealed all the madness of the business model, at the level of individual clubs and in the game as a whole.”
FIFA estimates that COVID-19 is likely to cost football $14bn this year – about one-third of its value. It has posed an existential threat to many clubs often already floundering under debt and mismanagement amid wider inequality.
Even some of the world’s richest clubs have deferred salaries and payments, taken on huge loans, asked players to take pay cuts and furloughed or laid off staff – Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil even offered to save the club’s mascot Gunnersaurus from redundancy.
Andrew Warshaw, chief correspondent at Inside World Football, told Al Jazeera smaller clubs who rely on matchday revenue have suffered most. Many clubs and entire leagues facing the prospect of collapse have been forced to seek bailouts.
“The biggest problem is really in the lower leagues and non-league football, because these clubs are struggling even to exist. They don’t have the TV revenue to fall back on,” he said.
Reservations over the safety and wisdom of playing on during a pandemic were generally overruled by the brutal truth that the sport could not afford to forfeit the colossal broadcast revenues at stake.
While some countries cancelled their seasons, many leagues and competitions returned in May or June to play in empty stadiums – under strict testing and distancing protocols.
Liverpool saw out their first league title victory in 30 years playing in empty grounds. Continental club competitions returned in abbreviated formats – Bayern Munich won a Champions League that was packed into a couple of weeks in August.
Matches without fans – what the Germans call “Geisterspiele” (or ghost games) – played out to eerie soundscapes; whether from the cries of players made audible amid an ambient hum of absent fans or the artificial crowd noises added by broadcasters that jarred with shots of empty seats and often failed to compute with the messiness of real matches.
Montague says tensions between the idea of football clubs as institutions rooted in local communities and their status as globalised brands have been brought into even sharper relief this year – and the longer restrictions are in place, the greater the threat to fan culture.
“At the beginning of the pandemic I thought: it’s terrible how fans aren’t there but it’s also showing how important fans are – not just to the atmosphere, but also to the business model of football,” Montague said.
“But as it’s gone on, you start to see how people who run clubs, who run organisations in football see the need to exploit this window of opportunity to try to push through the reforms that would never have been possible before.”
Some clubs and officials – including Real Madrid’s President Florentino Perez – appeared increasingly determined to push for an elite breakaway European super league during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, English Premier League clubs in October rejected the controversial Project Big Picture plan devised by Manchester United and Liverpool, which had proposed more revenue and a financial rescue package for lower league clubs in exchange for the concentration of power among English football’s elite.
The pandemic has often produced erratic football matches and wild score-lines, as well as more penalties and goals in many leagues.
Aston Villa beat reigning champions Liverpool 8-2, Bayern Munich humbled Barcelona by the same score in their Champions League quarter-final – leading to a thoroughly disgruntled Lionel Messi. Arsenal could not win a league match for almost two months.
“I think the fact that fans have not been able to attend home games, and the lack of pressure of having to perform in front of a packed audience, has led actually to free-flowing football by most clubs, and that’s why you’re getting these strange, bizarre results every other week,” said Warshaw.
Research by the Institute of Labor Economics found that in many leagues home advantage prevailed but was often less marked in empty stadiums and that referees awarded fewer yellow cards to away teams.
Many players tested positive for COVID-19 – including Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mohamed Salah – and picked up injuries amid a congested fixture list.
“[Footballers] already played a lot pre-COVID, but having to squeeze all these games into such a short space of time is bound to have an impact on players’ physical and mental wellbeing,” Warshaw said.
Women’s football has also taken a huge hit, with many leagues cancelled in 2020. In a report on COVID-19 published in November, the global players’ union Fifpro found that in 26 percent of surveyed countries women’s clubs were not included in the return to play protocols.
Fifpro General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said wage cuts, job losses and a lack of support meant there was a “real danger that progress towards gender equality in parts of world football will be set back years”.
Meanwhile, debates over altered offside and handball rules, as well as the application of the VAR (video assistant referee) technology system, have become noticeably more acrimonious this year, Montague said.
“Having more people watching in front of televisions and screens is exacerbating that problem somewhat I think,” he said.
There were some heart-warming football stories this year; Japanese football legend “King Kazu” aka Kazuyoshi Miura, 53, set a new record in September when he became the oldest starter in the history of the country’s elite division. Celtic player Ryan Christie was overcome with emotion in an interview after Scotland qualified for its first major tournament since 1998.
And, while athlete activism is nothing new, footballers in 2020 have increasingly spoken out on political, social, and environmental issues. “This is on a scale, depth and reach that is really unprecedented,” Goldblatt said.
Footballers joined a FIFA and World Health Organization campaign against domestic violence during lockdowns. Many players repeatedly demonstrated support for the racial justice movement Black Lives Matter.
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has become a powerful force for social activism in the UK against hunger – twice forcing the British government to back down and reverse its policy over free school meals – as well as promoting reading and literacy.
Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann cut his ties with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei over its alleged role in the surveillance of the persecuted Uighur Muslim minority.
But of course it has also been a year of profound loss in the football world.
Iraqi football legend Ahmad Radhi died after contracting COVID-19.
In 2020 the world also mourned the deaths of legendary Italian striker Paolo Rossi, former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier, England’s 1966 World Cup winners Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles, and Argentine great Diego Maradona.
Fans began returning to many stadiums across the world in the latter months of the year until surging infections and mutant strains emptied many stands again in December.
“[COVID-19’s] human cost – physically, mentally, and financially – is going to linger long after vaccines are rolled out worldwide,” Warshaw said.
Meanwhile, other trends loom on the horizon.
“A big story of 2021 will also be Brexit, and how that affects the Premier League,” said Montague, “and how much of a benefit there is going to be for other big clubs in Europe who can take advantage of the chaos.”
From January 1, 2021, all foreign players in the UK will be subject to a points based threshold, and British clubs will no longer be able to sign foreign players below the age of 18.
Goldblatt, meanwhile, pointed out that the pandemic is linked to environmental factors and the climate crisis, which will have increasingly stark implications for football and which the sport has to address now.
His research has found that the stadiums of 23 of the 92 English Football League clubs will experience partial or total flooding by 2050.
“Grimsby Town better take up water polo ASAP,” he said.
Goldblatt says football – as a sport of comebacks, shock victories, and deep cultural and political reach – generates collective hope and can play a vital role in climate activism.
“Maybe I am being too corny, but hope is a precious commodity. I don’t actually experience it in most of my life, spiritually or politically. But I do in football.”