For a recent radio interview, I spoke to a zoologist about animal sex. Turns out that pandas are really good at sex but really hate an audience and this is one of the key reasons they don’t (not can’t) conceive. One group of mammals (don’t say animals) that do tend to like an audience are footballers (not in that way).
This week Manchester City played CSKA Moscow at the latter’s Khimki stadium in a closed match at which no crowd were admitted due to fans of the Moscow team’s past misdemeanours involving racist chanting at black players; specifically that of Man City’s Ivorian midfielder Yaya Touré a year before. Inside the stadium were 650 people made up of 75 delegates from each club, 50 centre-circle boys and their parents, 150 members of the media and 300 “partners” of Uefa: the sport’s European governing body. The game sounds like a pretty bleak affair, played in freezing conditions in front of hardly anyone; surreal for a Champions League match – that most hyped of media occasions.
But not quite no one: it seems that up to 200 CSKA fans managed to sneak into the stadium (with booze, natch) and got some sort of atmosphere and chanting going in the cold and echoey arena. This apparition of support and partisanship was much to the distaste of the Man City players and their manager, Manuel Pellegrini. Why did it matter? Because rules are rules, of course, and the world’s top football teams will rub up alongside them at all times and bend them when they can, too. But also because playing to an empty house is like not playing at all.
So what difference does support make? “The home advantage” is a phrase bandied about on every strand of sports commentary because it’s something like a tidal wave of noise, emotion and pure feeling; an often irresistible mix that makes the legs run longer and faster, the air feel like pure oxygen, the opposition goalmouth that much wider.
The game ended 2-2 after a contentious 86th-minute penalty brought the home team level and immediately after the final whistle was blown, reporters asked Pellegrini if he thought Moscow’s unexpected home support could have swayed the referee in awarding the penalty – after all, certain grounds are known to be fortresses for their teams in which officials are loathe to chastise the home team and pressured to penalise opponents. Perhaps wisely, Pellegrini would not be drawn, although he agreed that support is hard to ignore.
A little like Schrödinger’s Cat, we might wonder if a match existed at all if it was played in an empty stadium and while we’re pondering that – and giving the pandas their privacy – we underestimate the logic and power of crowds at our peril.
Robert Bound in Monocle’s culture editor.