Football in Empty Stadiums

Sociologist Dr. Michael Wetzels discusses playing football without fans

Dr. Wetzels, prior to the coronavirus, football and packed stadiums went hand-in-hand. Football matches without spectators, without fans, were unthinkable. We have now just finished the second season played in front of empty stands. What does that say to you?

It’s confusing because it goes counter to our idea of what football stadiums are. We had gotten so used to seeing packed stands at first and second Bundesliga games on TV, that we simply could not imagine football without the presence of spectators and fans. However, the coronavirus has shown us that this is possible. Football can take place without an audience. If you think about it, this really isn’t so strange after all. Amateur games in Berlin frequently take place without spectators and the sight of players celebrating in front of empty stands, strange though it may be, is common enough.

In other words, you are saying that the idea that you cannot have football without a packed stadium isn’t really true after all?

It’s not really a question of its being true or not. It is just how things have developed. In sociology, we speak about social constructions. If we consider the origins of modern football in England at the end of the 19th century, we can see that the majority of games took place without a large audience. It was a sport for the upper classes, played at private schools and universities. This only changed gradually, and in Germany only really from the early 1920s on. Football then developed a broader appeal and replaced gymnastics as the most popular sport. Over time, fans coined the phrase “the 12th player,” thus forming a unit with their team against the opposing team and their fans. This unity of team and fans is – as I said – a social construct, something created, but nevertheless very much reality for the fans. If people see a situation as real, then it is real for them. However, the pandemic has jolted this reality, this social construct. The fans miss their stadium as this is ultimately their home.

Your academic work has included football stadiums. What was the focus of your research?

My doctorate focused on affectual dramaturgy in football and examined collective emotions in the game. My research inevitably included the stadiums themselves as the places where these collective emotions find expression. I concluded that they are necessary to create and make sense of feelings of ecstasy, celebration and disappointment.

In your blog for the Re-Figuration of Spaces Collaborative Research Center, you describe football stadiums as places of polycontextuality. What does this mean?  

What I mean is that there are different ways of interpreting football stadiums, or different perspectives if you like. If we take the Olympiastadion Berlin as an example, this is used as a football stadium and known to a great many people as such. However, if we consider that its name actually references the Olympics, then we can see that in architectural terms it is not purely a football stadium, was built, and can be used for other sports, such as track and field. Beyond sports, it is also used for a range of other events such as concerts. In other words, the Olympiastadion is many places in one. It can be interpreted and used spatially in different ways. This is what I mean by polycontextuality.

I would like to explore the interpretation of football stadiums as a home, if I may. You write in your blog that football stadiums are a home for fans. Was this feeling of home and belonging not called into question by the coronavirus as the clubs continued to play without their fans? By doing so, are the clubs not sending the message: Dear fans, football is possible without you. How do you see this?

Well, that is a possible interpretation. And there may well be fans who feel this to be the case. However, the idea of fans and management seeing things differently was already around before the coronavirus. I can remember when Hertha Berlin replaced Frank Zander’s Nur nach Hause with Dickes B by Seeed as club song. The fans protested strongly against the management’s decision. In the end, the management accepted the fans’ wish to keep the old song. But let’s get back to the subject of football during the coronavirus pandemic.

Yes, let‘s.

It may well be that some fans have felt snubbed by the fact that football continued without them. But others recognized the need for stadiums to remain empty to protect against the spread of the virus and for clubs to keep playing to survive economically. So we can see here too different interpretations regarding places, but also that these different interpretations can be justified from their relevant perspectives.

I would like to suggest an interpretation arising from the pandemic. Football stadiums – as we knew them – have become empty shells now that we have seen that games can be played without spectators. It requires an enormous use of resources to maintain these stadiums and that means money which could be saved. So, it could be argued that all you need for a game of football is a mown pitch, two goals, markings, and a referee – and nothing more.

That’s an interesting question. However, the point is we do have this social construct which says that football and fans belong together in a stadium. And this construct cannot just be swept away, even by a pandemic. Social constructs have a long life. They establish themselves over decades or even centuries. We do certain things and are used to doing them in the world we have constructed for ourselves. That’s why we made things as they are and not differently. The same goes for stadiums. Additionally, stadiums can, as we said, be interpreted as a home, as a second living room. I once came across a sheet of paper stuck on a barrier in the standing area in the stadium of 1. FC Union Berlin, which said: “This space is reserved for Gitty and Herbert.” A rational interpretation, such as the one you put forward, means nothing when set against such a powerful sense of belonging.

What can we learn from the knowledge that there are many different ways of interpreting places?

That there isn’t one single true and correct interpretation or perspective. We should avoid such a view and I would warn against generalizations. Just as we could not imagine football in the time before the coronavirus without spectators and fans, so we should avoid concluding now that football is possible without an audience.

Interviewer: Sybille Nitsche