Sports around the world are preparing their return from a COVID-19-induced hiatus. While some countries did not change their sports schedules, including Belarus’ ongoing national soccer league and the opening of the Taiwanese baseball season, the vast majority of the world’s sports leagues have experienced delays this spring. The German soccer league, the Bundesliga, has kickstarted the return process in western Europe by restarting play this past Saturday. The Bundesliga has begun under strict conditions: teams will play without a live audience and players will be routinely tested for the virus.
Sports fanatics and players alike remain largely uncertain of how games will play out in the new and changing post-COVID-19 landscape. Soccer is a particularly salient sport to analyze given that matches traditionally draw some of the largest crowds in the world and the game brings 22 players into close contact on the field.
COVID-19 may be unprecedented in how it has deeply impacted our modern, globalized world, but the new temporary reality for many sports has been seen before. Playing without spectators, for instance, has happened before COVID-19. One recent example of this occurred in October 2019, when the men’s national teams from North Korea and South Korea faced off in Pyongyang for a FIFA World Cup Qualifying match. The characteristics of this particular match may provide further insight into post-COVID soccer.
No Live Audience
The October face-off between the North Korean (PRK) and South Korean (KFA) teams was the first to occur in North Korea in 30 years. The match took place in Pyongyang in an empty 50,000-seat stadium, despite FIFA demands and South Korean expectations. As star South Korean footballer Son Heung-min stated before the match, “The fact that fans can’t come is a heavy blow to us…I hope we can prepare well for such atmosphere and come back with good results.”
The lack of a live audience can remove the importance of a home-field advantage for the hosting team. Without a stadium full of fervent supporters loyal to the home team, the typical “home” atmosphere of a match evaporates. This does not mean away matches are entirely neutral for the visiting team. Visitors still need to travel for away matches, which can affect player performance. In the case of the KFA, South Korean players traveling to North Korea would undeniably impact their psychological experience as a visiting team. The global pandemic has no doubt had a similar impact on players’ psyches, and could manifest in player performance. Home players may not play to the standards expected at home, and traveling teams may have a better shot at upsets even if traveling still plays a factor in pre-match preparations.
“It was like a war”
In addition to removing the home-field advantage, playing behind closed doors could spark misdirected aggression. The PRK vs. KFA game was reported as a brutal clash between the two sides. South Korean news agencies released a video after the match showcasing player skirmishes that required referee and player intervention. As the team’s general manager, Choi Young-il, stated after the match, “It was like a war.” Son further agreed with that statement, adding, “To be honest, the game was so tough that I think we were very lucky already to be back with no one injured.”
While conflicts on the pitch reflected greater tension on the Korean peninsula, there is something to be said for the absence of live audiences and the intensity of a given match. Video Assistant Referees (VAR) are meant to serve as an omnipresent checks-and-balances system for various disciplinary calls in soccer, but audience members can serve similar, informal functions. Simply knowing there are fans in the stands can influence player behavior and deter more aggressive outlashes. In removing the masses, rivalries between teams could turn ugly more quickly and with fewer witnesses.
The final score of the PRK-KFA game was a 0-0 draw. This is an extremely surprising result if you look at the FIFA global ranking of each national team alone. In 2019, the KFA ranked 37th in the world. In stark contrast, the PRK ranked 116th. The political tensions present between the two countries could have contributed to the unexpected draw, as intense rivalries are likely to equal the playing field between teams with drastically different skill levels. Whatever the confluence of factors, post-COVID sports may produce more upsets than typical matches as the game is stripped to its most basic form.
The absence of live sports during COVID-19 has confirmed the importance of sport in everyday life and society. Players and fans may be hoping for an immediate return to “normal” soccer, but the restrictions placed on the game as it reopens reflect a different — but not unprecedented — reality. The growing pains of restarting league play across the gamut of sports in a changed world may be felt by those who play and watch alike, but this doesn’t mean sports will never return to their former glory.