We’re starting to get used to seeing games played in front of empty stadiums, and as the coronavirus continues to sweep across Europe it seems there’s going to be a lot more of it – assuming games are being played at all. For players who are used to selling out every ground they play in, and fans used to being there to see them, this is all very strange. But as a woman footballer I played in front of empty stadiums for half my career, and really it should not affect performance.
I was surprised to read what Pep Guardiola had to say the other day about playing football behind closed doors. “I would prefer not to play games without people watching,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to play professional football without the people, because they are the ones we do it for.” From my perspective as a female footballer, if you play in front of 75,000 people or five, it doesn’t make a difference: the game is still the game.
This is where women’s football is perhaps purer in its culture than the top of the men’s game, because historically we haven’t had to worry too much about anthems and sponsors and corporate hospitality, we are just there for the sport. At the end of the day, governments and governing bodies across Europe are concerned that gatherings of large groups of people will accelerate the spread of a deadly virus, and that’s what is most important. Some things are more important than money.
Having said that, a full ground definitely makes a game feel more special. When I think back over the greatest moments of my career, a lot of them were, of course, the big occasions. When I won the FA Cup with Charlton in 2005 it was at Upton Park with about 20,000 people there – not full but pretty busy; when I won it with Chelsea in 2015 there were about 30,000 at Wembley; I played at the 2012 Olympics in front of 75,000 people. But then I remember winning the league at Staines Town in front of 1,200. It’s still the same pitch and the same players, so to a certain extent we need to just get on with it.
Perhaps players will find the absence of people and noise distracting for a while. That special matchday atmosphere is not there, and the energy you get from the fans, the buzz that can give you a few extra per cent during a game, is missing. I’m fully used to that because it’s been the reality of women’s football for a long time, but for the men it is a novelty. Ultimately, however, once the referee’s whistle blows the intensity shouldn’t change, the football shouldn’t change.
Maybe in the women’s game we experience the same thing in reverse, when players used to performing in front of small crowds are thrown out of their comfort zone when they find themselves in front of a large one. It could be difficult on those occasions: not distracting exactly, but you have to quickly learn to block out the crowd and not play the occasion. The job of the coach and the players, just as with the men at the moment, is to prepare properly so they don’t let it affect them and just get on with the game. Your focus has to be on beating your opponent, whether it’s being watched by one man and a dog or 50,000 people and a television audience of millions.
I’ve just come back from a scouting trip to Portugal, where the final of the Algarve Cup got cancelled. Portugal has had relatively few cases of the coronavirus, but scouts as well as players had come from all over the world and they felt it wasn’t safe to have a public game, while Italy’s squad was worried that with flights back to their homeland being cancelled they might be unable to get home if they stayed until the final. This is a global game that has global responsibilities. In theory a match between, say, Norwich and Southampton is a fairly small-scale, local affair but increasingly people travel from all over the world to watch Premier League matches. Northern Italy is the centre of the disease in Europe, and though that may seem distant there’s no way of telling whether some people from Italy have travelled to England to watch a game. There are times when caution is the best policy.
Of course, not everyone will listen to official advice. There were cases in Europe this week of fans who had been locked out of the ground congregating outside anyway to support their team. Ultimately individuals will decide whether they want to put themselves at risk and live with the consequences, but clubs must follow the government line.
One thing is for sure, though: you know when football matches are getting cancelled something serious is going on. Usually football is quite stubborn about protecting the game, and avoids cancellations or even rescheduling except when there is no option. Racism has been a problem in the game for decades, on the pitch and in the stands, but it’s not even come close to being taken seriously enough to close a stadium. Sport generally won’t cancel anything for anything, and this sudden willingness to do so speaks to how fragile we are, and how significant this situation is.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion about how much stadium closures will cost the clubs, and how badly some of them will suffer, and I am sure there are professional clubs that will struggle to cope. But ultimately there is enough money in football to get through this hopefully temporary period. Football clubs have always tried to make the finances of football work in their favour but this might be the time to put self-interest to one side and for everyone to support each other, for the good of the game.