Tonight, Argentina meets Brazil in the Copa América final. Tomorrow, England meets Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
These are similar games, in that they’re the continental championships of soccer’s two biggest continents. Brazil and England are both playing home games, somewhat unexpectedly — Brazil because it’s only hosting the tournament after Colombia and Argentina couldn’t, England because Euro 2020 is a strange pan-European beast, but they had to put the final somewhere. (And also it’s a surprise because England’s in it.) Which brings up the other similarity, which is that both have a strong “can they stop the streak” flavor; Argentina hasn’t won anything since the 1993 Copa, England hasn’t won anything or even played for anything since the 1966 World Cup.
Even so, though, these games are going to feel remarkably and wildly different. Brazil-Argentina at the Maracanã, England-Italy at Wembley, it’s hard to come up with fixtures that are much bigger than that. But Wembley will have 65,000 fans, 64,000 of which will be living and dying with every English action. The Maracanã will be at… 10% capacity, it sounds like? Seven or eight thousand fans?
Fullish stadiums have been slowly coming back for awhile now. Most American states have ended restrictions on large gatherings, and so MLS games are back to full capacity (or in the case of Dallas, their usual 40% or so — zing, tip your waitresses, try the veal, etc). The CONCACAF Nations League final between the USA and Mexico put 37,000 fans in Denver’s NFL stadium, about half capacity, enough that there were roars on both sides like the usual Stateside cross-border game.
The one I’ll really remember, though, was the first match at Puskás Aréna in Budapest, for the game between Hungary and Portugal in the group stage at the Euros. They mostly packed it, with more than 54,000 baying Hungarian supporters in the stands, and after a year of empty stadiums, even the televised experience was overwhelming.
The noise! The roars shook the camera and rolled through the stadium like water in a bathtub. Every time the referee called something against Hungary, the dismay from the crowd was palpable, almost physical. A year and a half ago, this would have been normal; after all this empty-stadium time, it was almost overwhelming, even on TV. I expected the stadium announcer to plead with the fans: PLEASE, FOLKS, THE REFEREE IS JUST DOING HIS JOB. CAN WE HAVE QUIET? QUIET, PLEASE, FOR THE SOCCER.
It was like seeing the sun after a day trapped in a basement, or putting a bucket over your head and screaming after being shushed in a library. I forgot about that! I forgot about that physical sensation of crowd noise, that earthquake of people that shakes the camera and affects the game.
And that, of course, was one of the reasons that sports are great. They call soccer “the beautiful game,” but the truth is that in every single sport, you can find someone writing about it in idyllic terms — about the crack of the bat in baseball or the sound of skates on ice in hockey or the powerful WHOOMP of a car going by in auto racing.
It’s reductionism, an attempt to find meaning in the game itself, and it’s valid as far as the in-person experience goes, or the experience of playing a sport goes. Hitting a perfect shot in golf is to feel like the universe is at your command. Seeing someone hit a top-corner volley in soccer is to feel the life of the universe flow through you.
As it turns out, though, that experience is interesting on television, but in the same way that the Weather Channel is interesting. If you stick around for an hour, you’ll find yourself murmuring about low pressure and cold fronts, but sticking around for an hour is a challenge; either you’ve got a passion for meteorology for its own sake, or you’re life-threateningly bored, or a combination of both.
Without the crowds in the stands, soccer — and all sports —turned out to be no different. I watched a lot of sports without crowds over the last year and a half, and I enjoyed them, but not nearly in the same way. Unless I had a personal rooting interest or a genuine curiosity, like I wonder how Kimmich and Goretzka are going to fare in the same midfield against PSG — you know, something utterly crucial and important like that — it was hard to get involved, even for a genuine nutcase like me. I spent a lot of the year turning on a game and failing to get interested in it because I couldn’t remember which team was which. Without crowds, it’s just red-shirted people against white-shirted people, kicking a ball.
And so I find myself trying to find specific things to get interested in with Brazil and Argentina tonight. There are lots! Starting with Messi! Lionel Messi has lost final after final with Argentina, un león con varios gatos, and he’s running out of chances. He’s driven the Argentinian bus, foot on the gas, through the whole tournament, but he usually does that; can he finally drag his team through Brazil, which has been a juggernaut lately? More to the point, how will he play — facilitator or protagonist, scorer or assister, calm or desperate, joyful or angry? They could put the camera solely on him and it’d be its own opera.
But England-Italy, now that is going to be some Sports right there. Brazil-Argentina is a film, but England-Italy is going to be a movie, the Movie-Going Experience Of The Summer, See It In Surround Sound and Gorgeous 3D. Sinews will be strained. Italian names will be shouted. (Try it yourself, it’s genuinely joyful: Locatelli! Insigne! Immobile! Chiellini! Donnarumma!)
Everyone wants fans back in the stands. Fans want to be there, teams want them to support the team and spend some money, TV broadcasters need the roars — and as much as anything, we all want the pandemic to leave us alone, and large group gatherings have become as much of a sign of that as anything, as the first thing banned and the last thing to return.
The Bundesliga was the first league to come back, in 2020, and the first week it came back, the Borussia Monchengladbach ultras put a sign in the stands that said FOOTBALL WITHOUT FANS IS NOTHING.
After this last year and a half, I understand how right they were. And if you watch tonight’s game and tomorrow’s game, I expect it’ll make sense to you too.