Behind Closed Doors #1

Dortmund v Shalke 04 : RB Leipzig v SC Freiburg 16052020

…the collective song and intoxicating sound of the crowd does not just provide an accompaniment to the beautiful action of the players, but is the sublime matrix out of which play emerges, the force field that energizes the action, taking the form of competitive song and counter-song, strophe and antistrophe. This is why games played in front of empty stadia, say as a punishment for the fans’ racist behaviour, are such an abomination. A game without fans is a kind of category mistake; a mere training ground exercise devoid of sense. The key to football is the complex, configured interaction between sublime music and the beautiful image, Dionysos and Apollo, the fans and the team.

Simon Critchley What We think About When We Think About Football (2017 : p.70-71)

Dortmund v Schalke 04

The category mistake described by Simon Critchley has arrived, it is here, it is abundant. The Bundesliga has returned with all matches taking place behind closed doors. On March 15th this year, before many nations had entered lockdown and shortly after Valencia met Atalanta behind closed doors in the Champions League, Tim Lewis wrote this in The Guardian:

The Mestalla in Valencia has to be one of the most intimidating stadiums in the world for visiting football teams. Its stands, which have the pitch of a ski jump, allow home fans to create a claustrophobic wall of noise. The rabid screams of 55,000 Valencians, bouncing off the concrete foundations, have made it something of a fortress for the local team and a popular venue for Spain’s home fixtures. A while back, I watched Valencia play Barcelona at the Mestalla, and there was a febrile menace in the air that night unlike any other I have experienced in a football ground.

The vibe at the Mestalla was rather different last week, when Valencia hosted Atalanta in the second leg of the sides’ Champions League last-16 tie. If ever a team needed a boost from their 12th man, their fans, it was now: Valencia had to make up a 4-1 deficit from the first leg. But, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the fixture was played behind closed doors. Watching the match on TV was eerie: you could hear the players shouting for the ball or celebrating or appealing for a foul. At times you had to remind yourself that it wasn’t a training exercise.

The febrile energy of Simon Critchley’s ‘sublime matrix‘ is now absent and so I started thinking about the sounding spaces that fans were now watching matches in, their domestic spaces. We watched Dortmund v Schalke 04 from the Westfalenstadion in our kitchen.

In the 29th minute at the Westfalenstadion Thorgan Hazard sent a beautiful curling cross into the Schalke penalty area from the right. It eluded the defender at the near post and arrived in the six-yard box at the same time as Erling Haaland who despatched the ball past the goalkeeper with a single, delightful, touch. The football was beautiful. It was no less beautiful in itself because of the absence of spectators but it was somehow diminished. It felt like the idea of a beautiful goal, a simulation, without the vibrating air, the seismic response of the crowd. There was no roar, just the crack of the net as the ball struck home. Of course, there was the beauty of the sound of the ball striking Hazard’s boot, bouncing, striking Haaland’s boot and then the net – dum-ba-dum-ka – but frayed, unleashed quivering air, the venting of thousands of lungs was absent. I documented the situation in the kitchen, watching the game, sweeping the floor, emptying the bin, making a cup of tea, tidying .

Dortmund v Shalke 04 16052020

As the phenomenon of games being played behind closed doors continues I will document the situations in which I experience the matches. Listening to the resonance of the empty stadium seeping into domestic space and then, in turn, imagining the thousands of domestic environments in which the game is being watched, returning to the stadium, resonating, filling the stadium with domestic noise and action.

In Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Zidane talks about the sound of the crowd and how instead of hearing the mass sounding event his attention is often directed towards the sounding of individual events.

When you are immersed in the game, you don’t really hear the crowd. You can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear. You are never alone. I can hear someone shift around in their chair. I can hear someone coughing. I can hear someone whisper in the ear of the person next to them. I can imagine that I can hear the ticking of a watch.’ 

Zinedine Zidane Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno (2006)

I find myself imagining Erling Haaland’s attention being caught by the click of a kettle, Matts Hummels waiting for a goal-kick to be taken and becoming distracted by the sound of a breadknife cutting through a crust, the clank of bottles in the fridge, the rattle of cutlery in the dishwasher.

As Dortmund scored their fourth we switched matches and caught part of the second half of RB Leipzig v SC Freiburg at the Red Bull Arena while I emptied the dishwasher, cleaned the surfaces.

RB Leipzig v SC Freiburg 16052020