It’s fair to say that in the build-up to Liverpool’s Champions League quarterfinal against Manchester City, the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final, there was a fair bit of scepticism being directed towards Anfield.
Not at the football team: everybody knows they’re usually brilliant; everybody knows they occasionally sputter out and look silly. But at the proclamations from even the most sensible of Liverpool fans that they, through their welcome and their chanting and their noise and their atmosphere, were going to break City before the game even began.
There were three obvious objections. Firstly, could it really be all that special? English atmospheres aren’t what they used to be, after all, and certainly aren’t much compared to plenty found around Europe. This is the same Anfield that, just a few months ago, oversaw an FA Cup loss to Alan Pardew’s West Brom. This is a City side who went to the not-ever-so-quiet Napoli earlier in the season, and came back with a win.
Secondly, and more broadly, could something so crude and quaint as atmosphere make a difference in modern football? Surely this is a game that has progressed — tactically, technically, psychologically — beyond such crude rubrics as “oh dear, that shouty man is a bit scary, I won’t run as fast as the other lot” and “oh look, that shouty man is wearing the same colour t-shirt as me, I’ll run a bit faster.” The game has half-spaces now. It has player-specific nutritionists and circular dressing rooms and expected goals. What place for the old nonsense?
And, finally and most cynically, the suspicion that this was a bit of self-recursive mythologising. A tale of greatness told to shore up ideas of greatness. The kind of thing to which Liverpool fans, by reputation, are particularly prone. After all, something has to fill the space where all those league trophies used to go, and since hard evidence of being the best team in the country hasn’t been recently forthcoming, it’ll have to be something more nebulous.
All of which looks very silly after the event, of course. What was particularly interesting about the proposed welcome, however, was the way in which it was framed. This wasn’t just an atmosphere for atmosphere’s sake; a sing-song and a party and a good time. There was a specific expectation of cause and effect: put noise in, get performance (improved for Liverpool, diminished for City) out. At heart, it looked like nothing so much as a magic spell.
Obviously magic is even more embarrassing and old-fashioned a notion than atmosphere. We’re all post-Enlightenment hyper-rationalists now, creatures of logic and science and sensibleness. And yet …
… when tens of thousands of people gather in the same place, sing together, chant together, release smoke, paint their faces, wave their ritual tokens and wear their ritual garments …
… and when they do so explicitly with the intention of inspiring one group of combatants while intimidating the other …
… and when the feet of one team quicken and their blood rises, while the legs of the other grow heavy and their hearts small, and the flags of the officials bend in the desired direction …
… then that does seem to look, feel, and work an awful lot like solid, old-school magic.
Of course, it takes more than magic to win a game of football. Maybe the chants and incantations of the Liverpool crowd would have fizzled out had Pep Guardiola decided to pick his best team in their best formation. Had the linesperson’s flag gone up when it stayed down. Had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain complied with the laws of probability and whammed his shot into the stands. Football results have many authors.
Still, the belief in the power of crowds extends well beyond Anfield. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have both wondered about the atmospheres at their respective home stadiums, and Tottenham’s new ground has been specifically designed to keep the noise swirling around. (Though in accordance with the principles of the Premier League, the pricing structure may work against this noble ideal.) Even Jurgen Klopp has, at times, asked for more from Anfield. Liverpool don’t have a monopoly on such magic, and they are not immune to its absence.
In any case, magic is notoriously difficult, particularly when the Premier League seems at times to actively work against it. Ticket prices are ludicrous, crowds are aging, and the nature of the competition sees the big teams divvy up the prizes while everybody else hangs around hoping for a miracle while trying not to get relegated. if the atmospheres in England’s biggest stadiums can often seem limited to long stretches of quiet, a lot of abuse, and the booing of anybody that’s been in the paper recently, then there are plenty of reasons why this might be.
The Premier League’s elite managers (and Tottenham’s architects) are interested in the effects, in the transactional relationship between atmosphere and results. Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of atmosphere generation is the fact that it comes from, and requires, mass participation. One noisy football fan is a vague annoyance, easily ignored. Many of them, apparently, can do strange things.
This is, at heart, community magic. It takes the crowd into the game, collapsing the distinction between actor and spectator. And it demonstrates that football is still a place where the exponential multiplication of human will can, in the right circumstances, create a force strong enough to nudge the world. Just a little. Just like magic.