On Thursday night, Denmark will become the second country in mainland Europe to restart their league season after neighbouring Germany. In the opening fixture AGF Aarhus welcome local rivals Randers but it is on the sidelines where history will really be made. In front of one stand a giant screen, 40 metres long and 3m high, will be filled with fans watching via video link.
Supporters have signed up for free tickets to take part and can even choose their preferred section of the “virtual stand”. Two smaller screens will allow for neutrals and away fans to be there, too. The concept, created in partnership with Zoom, has taken weeks of preparation. “I’ve never been so busy before a game, which is funny when there are no spectators,” says AGF’s head of media, Soren Carlsen. “My colleagues, to put it bluntly, have been working their arses off to get everything working.”
The screens are the final piece of the puzzle, dropped into place on Wednesday at Ceres Park. The fans will form a digital backdrop for watching TV viewers, but sound has proved a stumbling block. “Imagine a big Zoom meeting, 10,000 people with their microphone on, it would just be white noise,” Carlsen says.
On Thursday night, fans in different sections will be encouraged to sing in unison. “We’re trying to create an atmosphere around the game. Players will be able to see the supporters and we hope they will be able to hear them chanting. They think it’s great that we’re trying something new.”
Last weekend a warm-up game was used as a test event with 50 fans invited to watch. Although the initiative has grabbed global attention, local supporters are still at its heart. The system allows season-ticket holders to head for their usual section and catch up with neighbouring fans. “When fans log in, they’ll see some faces they recognise,” Carlsen says. “Fans they normally see at the game, who they haven’t seen for three months.
“When you go to football, it’s a community experience. That is lacking right now because of coronavirus. This is a chance for people to get together.”
Life under lockdown inspired the idea, with Carlsen and his colleagues keeping in touch with furloughed colleagues via Zoom. “We thought: ‘Could we use this technology in stadiums?’” The club have had enquiries from all over Europe about replicating the idea and Carlsen can see potential for it to feature across a number of different sports.
The derby could become a historic starting point but for the club it already carries huge significance. Aarhus were third in the table and in the cup semi-finals when the shutters came down. Victory would seal AGF’s place in the championship play-offs – another reason to get fans involved.
“This is a very important game,” Carlsen says. “It’s hard for footballers to play without fans. How can we make sure that in an empty stadium the team remembers they are playing for a whole city?”
A team of more than 20 will try to make sure the game goes off without a hitch, including moderators who will tackle any fans causing offence.
AGF are not the only Danish club to try something different – the league leaders, Midtjylland, will set up big screens outside their stadium for fans to watch their first game back on Monday. AGF will be at home again on that day, against Odense.
Will the “virtual stand” still be in place? “We will see how it works tomorrow,” says Carlsen. “Is it fun for people? Is it a good experience? If so, then why not?”
The long-term goal is to have fans back in the ground and there are still faint hopes that small crowds could return before the end of the season.
The club has a history of blazing a trail – they played in the first European Cup – and Carlsen already has one eye on his next big idea. “We could have 1,000 fans, picked in a lottery and safely distanced. What an exciting day that would be. I would rather have 10 fans here than an empty stadium. It makes the world of difference.”