It was almost as if they had lost their way in search of their goal – suspended between not being present at the stadium, and not being in the comfort of their homes either. But here they were, of their own choosing, to revel instead in the afterglow of victory or collectively mourn the disappointment of defeat. It was a surreal few minutes, providing a telling image of the symbiotic relationship between the fans, the sport and the stadium.
Even if you couldn’t make it to the stadium, the physical proximity was important, equally organic and participatory. The city became an extension of the stadium. Brazil once may have claimed to be the spiritual home of football, but for that month of the World Cup, it was an Argentinian takeover.
“The crowd is a spectacle unto itself,” writes Christopher Thomas Gaffney, in Temples of the Earthbound Gods: Stadiums in the Cultural Landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. “The stadium may be the most global of the globalised,” he points out.
Yet the very nature of Gaffney’s concept of the globalised stadium is today threatened by the pandemic. As television provides readymade solutions in this crisis, the spectator is being jettisoned to accommodate an audience. Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo rising above everyone and scoring a terrific hat-trick, but there being no crowd in the stands chanting, “Messi, Messi!” It could happen.
International sport’s busiest year in recent memory came to a grinding halt last month. Even if there are reports of cricket still being played on the island of Vanuatu in the south Pacific Ocean, or that the Belarus football league didn’t stop to take a breather, no one knows when big ticket sport will resume. To get the business of sport back on its feet, boardroom money experts forecast seemingly viable windows, suggest empty, pre-quarantined sports centres like a giant greenhouse in the middle of nowhere.
Conversely, health experts advise caution, predicting that haste in getting sports back up and running could disrupt any delicate balance attained in keeping the Covid curve flat and risk sparking off a humanitarian crisis. While Germany deems it safe to return to its football soon, Spain, one of the worst hit in the ongoing pandemic, has ruled out any fans in stadiums till next year at least as it negotiated a resumption of the world’s most closely-followed football league.
The challenge is to find a middle ground, but there are no simple answers. Completing the international season so that it helps sustain those living off the industry is important. Finishing it, almost clinically, in empty stadiums seems to be the most viable solution, and while mannequins for a bit get a new purpose in life, it cannot be a lasting option.
However, with the realization that the virus is here to stay indefinitely, sport, like all other community activity, is headed for an altered normal. Social distancing would enter the sporting vocabulary. A half-full stadium will be nervously celebrated as record attendance; you would be forced to celebrate victory like a loss, scarcely reaching out to your mate but within your own personal space inside a stadium.
Furthermore, the pandemic could leave its impact on the sport ecosystem. Prize money could be slashed and big money transfers could take a hit (a $50m will become the new $250m and football’s future superstar Mbappe will have to be content with it). While it may not pinch the elite all that much, the diminishing returns will affect those who form the majority — working-class footballers, journeyman tennis players and the travelling golf professional. Smaller clubs and poorer federations will be under threat to shut shop. And in an already highly-masculinised world of sports, women’s sport the world over will further take a backseat.
On a socio-cultural level, a reverse globalisation could take place and sport may well return to its local roots. Previously fluid boundaries are likely to be drawn again. With foreign talent unwilling to travel or first world leagues reluctant to receive them, stricter immigration laws could become the norm and work permits hard to get. Sport will re-set to the very paradigms that it once helped blur. How high-definition TV adjusts to this climbdown will make for interesting viewing.
The idea of sport as a contest itself faces re-defining. Already, saliva and sweat to condition the ball is under question in cricket. Will face masks now form an integral part of a sportsman’s get-up, providing greater protection than a batsman’s helmet grille? What of contact and combat that are the essence of almost all sports – part of the reason the Dutch have summarily shut the Eredivisie is the spectre of the 20-metre halo of sweat and saliva droplets that surrounds a footballer during a game.
Funnily, the idea of stadiums without spectators may not be all that alien to Indians. In a pre-IPL time not long ago, the sound of the bat striking the ball echoing around the empty, dusty stadiums came to be identified with many Ranji seasons in the 1990s and 2000s as a saturated ODI international calendar kept the stars busy and disinterested for the domestic grind. It still happens.
Sitting on the sidelines and set to be cut adrift in a sense, Saravanan, a professional stadium fan, understands it best. Famous for painting himself in the bright yellow of the Chennai Super Kings team each IPL season, he even sagely advocates his own demotion. “Fans need to accept if matches are played without spectators,” says the man whose very identity is that of a live CSK emblem, “They should understand that it is for the larger interest. No player should be affected. They are the backbone of any sport.”
But the man whose ears still ring with the chants of his name – as they did across Indian stadiums for two decades — wonders about the loss of energy from the loss of the collective. “Empty stadiums would be so disappointing for players,” said Sachin Tendulkar as he turned 47 the other day. “Players respond to spectators. If I play a good shot and the crowd responds, it brings in that energy,” he remembered.
Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano had once noted that “there is nothing more empty than an empty stadium”. “There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators,” he said. In 2020, we are all seeing what he had already imagined. The future isn’t what it used to be.