IIn the final seconds before Sunday’s Seville Derby, the drone’s camera rose above the Sánchez Pizjuán, an expanse of empty red seats sprawling across the screen and, if you look closely, you can barely make out a lonely figure rushing past the stadium in the shadow of the main stand. In the field, the Sevilla Fútbol Club and The real Betis Balompié was preparing to start the hundredth derby in primera, a Champions League place at stake, but everything was silent and in the stands there was no one to see it, which is no less important because everyone already knows it and has been doing it since too long. Empty lots aren’t just a hard thing to get used to; they are something that you should not to get used to. Hopefully it won’t be needed any longer, Secretary of State for Sports Irene Lozano said fans may be able to return after Easter.
Not before the hour, as Sunday showed. The Seville derby is often considered the best in Spain and it is not because of brilliant players, although there have been many; it is because of the people who have been absent for a year now. The last La Liga goal scored in front of the fans was in Sevilla, with Betis’ Cristián Tello getting a late winner against Real Madrid in March 2020 who saw 51,521 people turn bananas. The following week should have ended with the derby but the country went into confinement and Sevilla vs Betis instead became the first game played when football finally came back almost a hundred days later. There was no one in the stands when Sevilla won 2-0 this Friday night in mid-June or anywhere else this weekend, some destined never to return. And there was still none this Sunday when they met in Pizjuán a year and a day since the proclamation of the state of emergency, symbol of all that football has missed.
In January, Betis and Sevilla drew 1-1 at Benito Villamarín, the start of a series in which Manuel Pellegrini’s improving team have lost just once in nine games, moving closer to their rivals. Now just as Sevilla’s season looked like it could get away from them even if it had started so well – out of the cup and outside Europe too – Julen Lopetegui’s side moved away from Betis again, winning 1-0 to tighten their grip on fourth place.
The game was decided by a goal in the first half from top scorer Youssef En Nesyri. And it was pretty much it, or so it is.
At times it threatened to get entertaining, with the first foul taking only eighteen seconds and Betis pressing high. There was an early penalty cry for a challenge from Bono over Sergio Canales. Borja Iglesias nearly scored an accidental equalizer with a chance rebound needing to be wiped off the line. And with the final kick, Nabil Fekir folded a shot just past the post, a collective inspiration quickly replaced by cries of relief and celebration. It was big and oh they celebrated, Óliver Torres summing it up with a “Sevilla fucking football club.”
But at the end of a weekend lit only by Karim Benzema’s brilliant late winner for Real Madrid against Elche and Gerard Moreno’s hat-trick in assists for Villarreal at Eibar, one in which nine of the 18 teams that played didn’t score and seven scored just once, in truth there wasn’t much more. The derby could not fully redeem what came before it, with El Mundo insisting that “in the absence of magic, only metallic nails and lukewarm bullets remained in the box”, while the Diario De Sevilla’s match reporter shared the entire contents of his diary, which was largely empty, offering an apology “that’s all, folks”. And when it was all over, Sergio Canales shrugged: “They beat us with very little. “
Is it just a game, or is it? Is it in fact a recurring theme, the Sevilla derby as an appropriate symbol of the whole, the game whose meaning depends most on the supporters? Sometimes when the whistle blows this season, it’s hard to avoid a simple question: Is that right? No, you shouldn’t overdo it. And yes, there have been bad games before and good games this season, times of joy and tension, of triumph and heroism. God knows there have been terrible derbies in the past, lost in all the noise. And yet sometimes the absence of fans – the absence of emotion which is pretty much the point – seems to go hand in hand.
Maybe it’s just us, not them. It’s easy to be impressionable and easy to be just plain wrong. The numbers could show something completely different. And short-termism often takes over: next weekend it might look different, just like last weekend probably. Maybe there are more dull draws than there have ever been before, more uneventful wins that will never be undone; maybe it’s no easier to hold a lead than it used to be, even if it sounds like it. It may not be slower. Maybe the absence of fans makes football Feel bad, rather than actually manufacturing It’s bad. But it does something.
There is a tangible impact, there are rational reasons. According to La Liga, the pandemic will have cost Spanish clubs 2 billion euros by the end of this season. In the summer more money was spent by Premier League, Serie A and even Ligue 1 clubs, in the winter window the gap was bigger, and league president Javier Tebas says that ‘he can’t see any big signings this summer, predicting there will be three markets before there is a rally. The measures to protect themselves involve cuts in sales and wages, nearly € 800 million in loans, and reduced budgets of € 984 million combined (although it might not be so bad: it may have given us Pedri for example and without Covid Ángel Jiménez would not have become the youngest debutant in Granada, mark the moment by saving a penalty.
The list of matches has also been compressed, cooldowns reduced. There have been more injuries than ever. It’s a little miracle that Granada are still standing, let alone winning, and up to eighth place. Their trainer, Diego Martínez, says the only time he felt flat was after having Covid. Madrid have had over 40 injuries. At the end of the derby on Sunday, Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan was asked about the team’s performance. “We needed it,” he says. “It was tough. We only had 15 days off, played two years at a good level. There is fatigue. And I’m saying this now that we’ve won because if I said it when we lost, that would sound like an excuse. I hope we can find some fans again soon, so that we can enjoy this derby with them again.
Sometimes this season has seemed like something for teams to go through. Enthusiasm decreases like energy, part of the essence of the game is taken away from them. They arrive in their kits and leave with them too, only briefly occupying makeshift lodges: an office, a tent, a hallway. In Villarreal, the away teams congregate in a suitable room under one end of the pitch, letting it walk along the touchline and head into the tunnel on the side for one reason – to be able to get out for them. cameras. Maybe there is something in there, a metaphor? It all feels a bit … well, compound. Not really real. In each stadium, bombastic public address systems do not announce the teams to anyone in particular, with some sometimes singing chants or applause in the corners. Sometimes there are light shows. The cameras erected in the stand are called the Fan Cam. But it’s empty.
Osasuna manager Jagoba Arrasate says it can be simplistic but insists playing in empty stadiums affected the way his team plays. It’s no coincidence, he says, that they haven’t staged a single comeback this season, when stats show they’re less intense, less aggressive than they used to be. Their style was built on an explicit and conscious communion with the fans, so maybe he would say that, but it’s something others suggest too.
“It’s more boring; there is less energy, less tension, less force; it’s calmer, more mental, more tactical, ”said Real Sociedad midfielder Mikel Merino. “Football is not the same without fans,” you lose so much, “says Nacho Monreal.” It’s horrible to play without fans. It’s a very ugly feeling; it’s a lot harder to get into the game and that’s why you see very close matches. The pandemic has changed football, and for the worse, “said Lionel Messi.
“Football without fans is crap” says Betis captain Joaquín. “It’s so different. It’s sad, very sad. Football is not that. Football without supporters, without the people who sing, who support you, who whistle, people who tell you things … this is Soccer.”
At the final whistle on Sunday night, Joaquín turned around and kissed Jesús Navas. Two symbols, young teammates who became captains, it’s been 16 years since Navas appeared in his first Sevilla derby, twenty since Joaquín. Thirty-five and 39 years old respectively, they had just played their 20th first division derby. No one has ever played more, and with only two and a half months left on their contracts, they might not either. Both are doing well and neither wants to end it yet, let alone like that, walking together towards the sideline in silence where should have been a standing ovation.