Football is back and we are grateful but a crowd is not a sound effect

Jonathan Liew on 30 June 2020

Nothing really prepares you for watching a Premier League game without a crowd for the first time. I was at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night to watch Chelsea v Manchester City and – after completing my temperature check, filling out my health questionnaire and negotiating the dozen or so security checkpoints – what I encountered was something bare and brutal: football stripped to its bones, condensed to its basic raw materials.

Perhaps the most startling thing was not how inauthentic it felt, but how real. You realise how small a stadium really is, how much flesh and longing we pack into these four walls. You realise, too, how much it means to those involved. The normal frames of reference – school football, youth football, training games, Sunday League – do not really apply here. Perhaps this is as much projection as reality, but you feel the freight of the occasion in every pass and barge and aerial duel. You hear Antonio Rüdiger bawling at his team-mates. Kevin De Bruyne barking: “NOW! NOW!” as he seeks a quick pass. Raheem Sterling screaming “OUR BALL, REF!” as if he’s pleading for clemency from the eternal fires of damnation, rather than a throw-in level with the 18-yard box.

You realise how much our interpretation of football is mediated not by the players themselves, but by the Pavlovian cues supplied by those watching it. The dangerous tackle is really just a scandalised roar. The “oooh” when a shot goes just wide is subtly different from the “ohhh” when it hits the post. And so it’s easy to forget that these are not little stick men in coloured shirts bobbing around the screen for our entertainment, but discrete human entities for whom this is life itself.

One of the few benefits of football behind closed doors has been to offer us a glimpse of this rich undergrowth, to hold a cupped ear to the fourth wall and listen to its cries and whispers. Viewers watching Brighton v Arsenal on BT Sport’s red button will have heard the piercing scream of Bernd Leno as he crumpled to the turf under the challenge of Neal Maupay.

Those watching Parma v Inter on Sunday night, meanwhile, will now know exactly how Romelu Lukaku feels when he’s unmarked at the back post and Victor Moses messes up a simple cross: “YES, VICTOR! VICTOR! FUCKING HELL!” And yet, in these first weeks of the restart, the majority of broadcasters have decided to offer us something different. Perhaps influenced by the stark alienation that many viewers experienced on the Bundesliga’s return last month, most matches have been shown with something called “EA Sports Atmospheric Audio”: pre-recorded crowd sounds taken from the Fifa video games.

A banner in the stands at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the game against West Ham last week.
A banner in the stands at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the game against West Ham last week. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/NMC Pool/The Guardian

This option is usually offered by default, with the unadulterated version usually hidden behind the red button. The result is a curious simulacrum of what a football match actually sounds like: familiar enough to anybody who grew up playing computer games, but still a little surreal when attached to the real thing. The short delay between event and reaction is but one problem. Who decides, for example, whether a refereeing decision is contentious enough to be booed? How much time does a visiting goalkeeper need to waste before he earns the furious barracking of an impatient home crowd? And, more importantly, does anybody find all this – the idea of some producer in a studio having an effects button marked “Goal” or “Save”, like a wacky breakfast radio DJ – a bit sinister?

After all, a football crowd is more than a sound effect. It’s a living, breathing organism. It’s a collective enterprise in which individual voices can still be heard. It rises and falls and seethes and sneers and occasionally leaves 10 minutes early to beat the traffic. It doesn’t simply react to what it sees; it’s an active participant, often scenting a shift in momentum long before it occurs on the pitch. It can be funny and filthy and senseless and racist. And it strikes me that trying to reduce all this to a set of buttons, to bottle it and sprinkle it all over the broadcast like grated parmesan, says a lot about how football now sees its live audience.

Of course, the live event and the broadcast product have been diverging for some time. While TV viewers are treated to replays, live stats and expert(ish) analysis, the match-going fan has been subjected to an increasing roll-call of indignities: ruinous prices, inadequate transport, kick-off times moved on a whim. But this is the first real admission that the stadium crowd exists not simply as a lower priority than the television audience, but as its servant: essentially, content producers whose function is to embellish the “main” product.

Meanwhile, televised football takes one more step down the road to scripted entertainment: a curated show sold to us not on the basis of authenticity but on escapism. And I have to admit: after a while, the fake crowd noise begins to blend into the background. Eventually you simply stop noticing it. You stop seeing the swathes of empty seats. You stop registering the weirdness. Your eyes glaze over a little. You forget that all this is taking place in the midst of a global pandemic, and simply lose yourself in these little stick men in their coloured shirts, bobbing around the screen for our entertainment. United are 1-0 up. That was a good chance, though. The 4/1 on the draw looks good value. Might grab another beer out of the fridge. Everything feels normal.

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