The Players Are Doing It for Themselves, Not Us


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Kylian Mbappé’s smile was real. His Paris St.-Germain teammates had gathered in a circle around him, bouncing and dancing and celebrating their progression to the club’s first Champions League final.

Their numbers kept swelling as stragglers and latecomers, those who had been sidetracked by media commitments or had to make their way down from the stands, arrived. Abdou Diallo has been in Lisbon as a spectator thus far; he had not played a minute of either of P.S.G.’s games. But when he reached the circle, he sprang off a teammate’s back and launched himself into the middle of the throng.

His joy was real, just as Lyon’s was, when its remarkable victory against Manchester City was confirmed. Just as Bayern Munich’s was, as each and every goal went in against Barcelona. Just as Neymar’s was, when Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting sealed P.S.G.’s place in the semifinals.

The converse has been no less true: the despair of Atalanta, as its dreams were snatched away in injury time; the glassy-eyed shock of Barcelona, as its time came to an end in agonizing slow motion; the anguish of Raheem Sterling, rocking on the turf as he tried to compute quite how he had missed. All of that pain was real.

It should not need to be said that soccer loses something without fans. Of course it does: Their absence strips it of a sense of occasion, spectacle, urgency. The noise of a crowd functions, essentially, as a Greek chorus, an emotional barometer, a form of voiceless narration of events as they unfold. It tells us — fans, distant, and players, present — how, what and when to feel.

These last three months, of games played out in stadiums, still and quiet, are not anyone’s idea of how sports should be. Though a strange alternative narrative has taken hold — in which elite soccer has chosen to do away with fans, rather than elite soccer doing the only thing it could to survive in something resembling its current form — there is nobody, anywhere, who wants to rely on computer-generated atmosphere longer than necessary.

But that is not to say that the worst fears that preceded soccer’s restart in the age of coronavirus have been realized. The worry, before those first Bundesliga games were played in May, was that — deprived of fans — the sport itself would suffer and the “show,” as Arsène Wenger called it, might not survive.

Games played in empty stadiums, without all of that noise and color and frenzy, would seem bland, lifeless, artificial. Soccer, as has been written before, does not have any inherent meaning; it is fans who imbue it with significance. Those fans in the stadium represent all of us; in their absence, the bond is broken. Not just between us and the team, but between action and importance. They are our ambassadors and interpreters, telling us what it all means.

That P.S.G. broke Atalanta’s hearts with nobody there to watch did not diminish the drama of it; the cruelty of its two late goals was not offset, even to neutral observers, by the fact that there were not 40,000 people rubbing salt in the wounds. In the seconds after Sterling’s miss, the eye was not drawn to the rows of empty seats; it was too busy trying to get a handle on the physics of what had just happened.

After a while, in other words, it is the game that draws us in, not the backdrop. How much you enjoy a play or a film is not dependent on how many people are there watching it with you. Perhaps that does not apply to the mundane games, the humdrum games; you may find it hard to be captivated by the drama of a draw between Crystal Palace and Burnley, but that may well be true in a full stadium, too. When the stakes are high, though, when the games really matter, you do not need to imbue a game with meaning, you simply need to infer it.

That is because, deep down, there is a lie that we tell ourselves, one that players and managers and executives are complicit in. It is a harmless lie, a comforting lie, a kind lie, one that we tell ourselves to excuse and to explain our passion, to transform our powerlessness into agency, to make us feel as if our love is reciprocated. It may be a lie that contains a form of truth. It is almost certainly a lie that those who perpetuate it do not know it to be a lie.

It is that they play for the fans, for us — that we are not merely observers of the events that play out on the field, but the purpose and inspiration for them.

And yet if these last few months have shown anything, it is that is not true. Mbappé’s smile and Diallo’s joy and Atalanta’s pain and Sterling’s despair have all been real, and it has all been real because, deep down, the players and the coaches we adore are not doing it for us. They are doing it for themselves.

They are doing it because this is what they have dedicated their lives to achieving, because this is what they are trained for, because this is what they dreamed of, because this is what they spend every waking hour (in some cases) thinking about. They are doing it for pride and for status and for ambition and, sometimes — though not as often as people say — for money.

That has been clear not just from the Champions League, but from countless scenes in countless countries. It has been striking to see how many players have celebrated goals in empty stadiums as if the stands were full to bursting. At first, it was tempting to see it as a force of habit — what else are you going to do? — but after a while, it became clear that it was not. It was a genuine expression of joy. They wanted to run to the corner. They wanted to raise their arms. Their happiness was not dependent on our presence.

The celebrations by Liverpool and Real Madrid and Bayern Munich when they won their leagues were not artificial. Nor were Chelsea’s or Manchester United’s when they qualified for the Champions League, or Aston Villa’s when it avoided relegation. Soccer means something to the players whether fans are there or not. They do not need to be told what to feel.

That has always been true, of course. To some extent, it is perhaps not especially revelatory. But only now, in these weeks of quiet and still in the stadiums, has it been brought into sharp focus. That is what has been most striking about soccer’s summer behind closed doors, what the new normal has allowed us to see: that the game does mean something, whether we are there to interpret it or not.

In Rose Lavelle’s eyes, signing for Manchester City was a chance to “challenge” herself. It meant moving abroad for the first time, discovering a new city, expanding her horizons, experiencing the Champions League, becoming part of the inexorable shift of power in women’s soccer to the grand old clubs of western Europe.

Lavelle is, though, being a little modest. The Women’s Super League has plenty of stars. She will be able to call Sam Mewis and Ellen White her teammates at Manchester City. She will encounter Vivianne Miedema, Danielle van de Donk and Sam Kerr as opponents this season. Lavelle, though, has the talent to be the brightest of them all.

She is likely to make more of an impact on the league than the league will on her. Should she settle in to her new surroundings, her arrival may yet come to be regarded as something of a transformational moment for the W.S.L. Manchester City, certainly, should now have the firepower to compete at a European level with Lyon and Paris St.-Germain.

More important, Lavelle is a bums-on-seats sort of a player, the kind who is worth the admission money by herself. Before the pandemic, women’s soccer was growing exponentially in Britain. The presence of Lavelle may be just the tonic it needs to ensure that momentum is not lost.

If Josep Maria Bartomeu, the Barcelona president, was trying to project an image of dynamism, and decisiveness, and power, then he succeeded. Within 72 hours of his team’s humiliating defeat to Bayern Munich last week, Bartomeu had: told his sporting director to fire his coach; fired his sporting director; announced a list of players he considered the integral cornerstones of the club’s future; and, by omission, effectively revealed that everyone else was available for sale.

If all of that was designed to project an image of control, though, it fell short. Barcelona’s new coach, Ronald Koeman, has a wealth of experience, but there is little in his managerial career to suggest he would have been given this chance if he were not a former Barcelona player. His appointment smacked of panic.

So, too, did the very public revelation that Barcelona would listen to offers for at least half of its current squad, the likes of Gerard Piqué, Luis Suárez and Jordi Alba included. That Barcelona needs an overhaul is no great revelation. That the central problem with carrying it out will be freeing up space in the team — and on the wage bill — is blindingly obvious.

The problem is there are only a handful of teams that can afford the salaries that the likes of Piqué and Suárez and the others command. Only a small portion of that handful would be likely to commit to those salaries when most of these players are approaching the twilight of their careers.

So all Bartomeu’s announcement did was irritate several players he may not be able to offload, and guarantee that potential buyers feel empowered to take advantage of Barcelona’s desperation. It felt like the act of a man who needed to be seen to do something. Quite how, exactly, he plans to do it seems to remain open to question.

To all of you who wrote in to tell me why it is that home teams are listed second in American sports, consider your work done: I’ve had dozens of emails explaining that it stems from the tradition of the home team batting second in baseball. Roughly half of those emails also pointed out that having a built-in home-field advantage* cannot accurately be described as either charming or gracious.

(*Is it an advantage to go second, though? I can understand why it is perceived as an advantage to go second — the same is always assumed of penalty shootouts in soccer — but I’ve never been sure that it holds water. If there is data available, please feel free to supply it.)

There were several requests for ways to improve other sports, too. Marty Forken asked for assistance on how to deal with “the inordinate amount of time spent standing around between plays and replay reviews” in the N.F.L., and Leonardo De Bellis is in the market for ways to change the atmosphere in “motor sports, in particular Formula 1.”

My instinct is to be smart and cheap, but seeing as I’m in the middle of a fascinating book on the rise of the N.F.L. in American life, I’m minded to resist. F1’s problem, as far as I can tell, is its predictability; it strikes me that leveling the field a little — maybe they could weigh Lewis Hamilton’s car down or something, like they do with horses — might make it feel less of a procession. I don’t know if you can improve the atmosphere, though. Have you ever been to an auto race? There’s loads of cars. It’s really loud. You can barely hear yourself think.

A tip of the hat, too, to John Matthew. “I think the best way to improve Rugby League,” he wrote, “is to adopt Rugby Union rules.” It’s definitely an idea that is worth exploring, but it needs workshopping. Let’s start, John, by flipping the whole concept around. A full 180. Then we might really be onto something.


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