Life amiss in football’s new normal
In the 16th minute of an exceptionally drab first half between Manchester United and Norwich City at Carrow Road on Saturday, the home crowd broke into cheer.
Nothing of note had happened for about 15 seconds, with United knocking the ball about in their own half, which made the cheer almost unnerving, especially with the stands completely deserted. There were only 300 people in total at the stadium, a number that seems large but is dwarfed by a packed house of 27,244.
In the 70th minute, a Norwich player headed clear a goalbound shot from his teammate, a sequence that would normally be marked by the crowd roaring with an anticipation that would crescendo until suddenly turning into pin-drop silence.
Instead, the usual cheer broke out, and would do so again when the Canaries netted the equaliser four minutes later, when they had a player sent off towards the end of the 90 and when Harry Maguire put the game to bed in extra time.
Cheers and chants are the cornerstone of a football game's atmosphere. But here a sense of monotony began to set in quite quickly, especially after hearing the same sounds over and over again. Eventually, they need to be tuned out like the commentary in video games like FIFA, whose developers, EA Sports, have been working with broadcasters to inject artificial crowd noise into the matches.
The artificial sound was rarely ill-timed, but when 45 minutes with players tired from playing up to three games a week fails to produce moments of brilliance, the cheer that reverberates around stadia like the laugh track in a TV show is jarring.
The environment at Saturday's game, an FA Cup quarterfinal, would normally have been robust, but still be overshadowed by the atmosphere at the recent Merseyside Derby or Revierderby, where the 12th man can play a pivotal role.
Instead, the artificial atmosphere was largely the same for leagues across the board, regardless of the teams and players on show.
Fans have been allowed into stadiums in some countries such as when the league in Vietnam resumed with 30,000 at the stadium. But the culture and flavour of Europe's biggest leagues have been completely missing and that will be evident when Liverpool walk onto the Anfield turf next Sunday as champions, ending an agonising 30-year wait for the title.
'You'll Never Walk Alone' will not be sung by the capacity 53,394 and there will be no songs, no tifos, nor flares. It will stand in stark contrast to their fans' ill-advised celebrations outside the famous ground on the night that they won the title. And it will be thoroughly underwhelming.
Not that we haven't seen it before. There was no extra loud cheer when Lionel Messi received the ball for the first time in three months, nor was there a deafening boom when Robert Lewandowski broke Bundesliga's record for most goals by a foreign player over a week ago.
No matter how far technology has advanced, the one thing that AI cannot compute is the essence of sport: emotion. The 'new normal' leaves little space for sentiment or passion.
Cardboard cutouts do not quite emote as human beings do. The image of that aged, moustachioed Brazil fan, sporting the famous yellow and clutching onto his replica World Cup with tears streaming down his cheeks, is one of the defining images of Brazil's 7-1 capitulation to Germany. His passing that cup to a German supporter after the game showed how magnanimous football can be. But without fans to cut to during every lull in action, without those reactions after every goal or close call, the sport has slowly begun to lose its essence.
At a time when the beautiful game has found it hard to speak for itself due to fixture congestion, player fatigue and a lack of fitness, the songs of the fans being replaced by droning recordings is perhaps fitting. But this 'new reality' is one that every fan cannot wait to see in the past.