Here we go, here we go, here we rather clankingly and disconnectedly go. And you can’t say there isn’t a bit of an atmosphere. The rain—Manchester rain, Industrial Revolution rain—is lashing down, fuming down, making a bodiless, roaring sound as it hits the empty bowl of the stadium. The players strut, scowl, looking nervous and thespian. Some of them, in this gleaming, gushing emptiness, appear quite altered: heavier, more sorrowful, years older. And stretched desolately across the banks of redundant seats, immense sky-blue awnings bear the legend WE’RE NOT REALLY HERE—a stalwart Manchester City chant, once upon a time, but now, in the absence of anyone to chant it, a piece of flickering poetry.
It’s been more than 100 days since the last soccer ball was kicked, the last nostril cleared, the last obscenity hurled in the English Premier League. Soccer disappeared, like everything else, in a puff of viral smoke. And now it’s back, sort of, as part of the great unlocking. Give the people something, for God’s sake. Yesterday was Project Restart, day one: Manchester City against Arsenal, at the Etihad stadium, City’s home ground. No crowd, only the cameras watching. Players, under the new dispensation, are tested, bar-coded, temperature-checked, board-certified and funneled carefully into the event via conduits of glistening hygiene. Handshakes and spitting are forbidden. At the Etihad, some of the coaching staff wore masks. (Not the managers—City’s Pep Guardiola stared out from under his hood with baleful, Seventh Seal-like intensity.) Before kickoff, the players formed a circle: There was a minute’s silence in memory of COVID-19 victims, then a collective knee taken in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “Our world,” observed NBC’s announcer Arlo White, solemnly and irrefutably, “is a very different place.”
Geisterspiele, they call these in Germany’s league, Bundesliga, which restarted a month ago: “ghost games.” The whistle peeps sadly; the match begins. Desultory shouts flit about the vacant stands. It’s still raining. And now the nonsensical happens: crowd noise. Am I hallucinating? Unfortunately not. In order to enhance the viewing experience, a layer of canned crowd has been added to the game—a discreet and shapeless din, a moldy clamor, punctuated by phantom surges of applause. These are sounds, to be clear, from another game, in another time. Their effect is disturbing, in a way that William Burroughs, that amateur practitioner of black magic, would certainly appreciate. When Burroughs wanted to hex the Moka Bar in London, in 1972, he went in—so the story goes—with a tape recorder under his coat, made secret recordings of the ambient sounds, and returned over subsequent days to surreptitiously play them back. Time streams crossed, psychic feedback was generated, and waitresses started weeping and dropping things.
It’s hard to concentrate on the game. But a game is taking place. Football is occurring. Two Arsenal players are injured almost instantly. These footballers are half fit, and their traditional pre-match hocus-pocus of warm-ups and stretching and twanging has been interfered with by the new rules. I myself, as a spectator, am half fit: My fandom is out of shape. It’s been kind of peaceful, to be honest, without the football. I’ve forgotten some of the players’ names. Do I really want to reconnect to all this, plug in again, get all re-riled up? Pablo Mari limps off; David Luiz, Arsenal’s flouncing and chaotic center back, comes on. A loose ball clangs off his knee and into the path of the City striker Raheem Sterling: 1–0 City.
Halftime: back to the NBC studio for highlights and analysis. Rebecca Lowe and her two ex-player pundits are distantly triangulated, like supervillains, around an enormous diamond of a glass table. I want them to speak jaggedly, futuristically. They don’t. The usual opprobrium for David Luiz: “Did he come into this game with the right readiness, attitude?” asks Robbie Mustoe. “Where David Luiz goes,” frowns Robbie Earle, “drama seems to follow.” The second half begins. Riyad Mahrez, magically weightless, drifts by Luiz with the ball at his feet; Luiz mauls him like a drowning man. Penalty. Red card. Luiz flounces off the pitch again. 2–0 City.
Now City take complete control of the game. The Arsenal players, as those short City passes go pinging untouchably around them, are reduced to shambling nodes of obstruction. White, up in the announcer’s booth, has found his groove: “Quicksilver footwork from the Algerian!” It’s all very familiar. Some of it is beautiful. But I remain streaked with ambivalence. Soccer, sweet soccer, were you part of my pre-pandemic frenzy of distraction? The accelerated idleness that got me through the day? How much do I need you? “City are purring,” says White. Arsenal’s manager, Mikel Arteta, his game plan in tatters, buries his chin in his drenched jacket. Guardiola, never satisfied, diagrams wildly in the air with his hands. The fake crowd moos and simmers. I disconnect.