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Tactically Naive: The weirdness of watching sports in empty stadiums

Juventus and Inter Milan played in an empty stadium because of coronavirus, and it was as eerie as we thought it’d be.

Paulo Dybala celebrating his goal against Inter Milan by running with his arms outstretched.

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. Today we have eaten half an orange. The brand is strong.

If a league falls in a stadium but nobody is there to see it …

In the classic Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Take Me Out to the Holosuite,” the climactic baseball game unfolds in front of a fully-simulated crowd hooting and hollering in the bleachers … for about a minute. Then Captain Sisko asks his Vulcan rival to dispense with the crowd, on the grounds that “The Niners” — his improvised team of Starfleet officers and hangers-on — aren’t used to the pressure.

The Niners, having had just two weeks to learn the game, are terrible; the Vulcans are remorseless. The scoreboard quickly becomes embarrassing. Sisko gets thrown out of the game, and takes a seat in the empty stands. It soon becomes clear the Niners have no chance of winning, and so, in that heartwarming Star Trekky way, the pursuit of victory is allowed to slide in favour of something far more noble.

In the ninth inning, with a runner on third, Sisko sends the clumsy Ferengi Rom back into the game, on the basis that since they’re all terrible they might as well all lose together. Then — spoilers! — he brings the crowd back. Spirits are lifted. Things are made better. And Rom accidentally bunts the ball into space and the Niners get their run.

In bringing back the crowd for the climax, Sisko honours and highlights one of the basic principles that underpins sport as we practice and consume it: events are both bigger and better when there’s a crowd gathered to watch. Indeed, that might be the thing that transmutes sporting moments into cultural moments: concentrated, engaged, responsive attention from those who are present but exterior.

This principle was reinforced this weekend, as Juventus returned to the top of the Serie A table with a 2-0 win over fellow challengers, Inter. It was a big game — it might, in the end, determine the destination of the title — and nobody was there to watch it. A game-breaking cameo from Paulo Dybala, the public dissolution of Ashley Young, and nobody there to shout “Hooray!” or “Boo!” or “Wait, what happened, I was on my phone?”

There is an inescapable weirdness about games behind closed doors. This could be the most important result of the entire season, and yet the empty stadium renders it somehow uncanny. It is the performers who perform, but it is the spectators who make it a spectacle. Without them, the game ends up something between a training exercise and a curious parody. Dybala even begins to take off for the corner before he realises there’s no one there, and has to run to the bench to celebrate and feel some human love.

The spread of the coronavirus hasn’t just hit Serie A. This Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 second leg between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund will also take place in front of an empty stadium, and it would be a surprise if other leagues don’t end up taking similar steps. In years to come, assuming civilisation doesn’t collapse completely, this season is going to look very peculiar in hindsight.

And If Juventus do end up lifting the trophy, they could well be waving it around in front of nobody at all. Unless, that is, the footballing authorities take a leaf out of Captain Sisko’s book, and fill the stands with holograms.

All hail King Bruno

Bruno Fernandes is in the middle of doing a public service. Joining a club like Manchester United must be hard for anybody, so he’s putting together a practical How To Make Friends At Your New Job guide, and sharing it with all of us. For free! What a hero.

Step 1: Play well. Seems obvious, but plenty of United’s recent signings have fluffed this most basic requirement. But since he joined United’s midfield, Fernandes has been busy, energetic, and above all effective. There’s imaginative quick passing going on now. Been a while since anybody not named Paul Pogba managed that.

Step 2: Shout at your teammates. One of the most endearing things about Fernandes has been his fearlessness. Some players quail when they arrive at a Big Club, but from the outset Fernandes has been happy to call his teammates useless whenever they’ve failed to pass to him. And he’s usually been right, too. He always seems be there, on the edge of the box, unmarked. It’s a good habit to have. Somebody let Daniel James know.

Step 3: Score penalties, make goals. It’s a results game, after all. What’s been notable about Fernandes is just how central he’s made himself to United. He takes most of the set-pieces, he dictates play, he takes the penalties and scores them, too. And he does all this with a charming personality.

Step 4: Tell Pep Guardiola to “shush” halfway through a Manchester derby.

It’s all so easy when you know how. Thank you, Bruno.

“Oh, no, I’m not that Ronaldinho.”

Let us consider Ronaldinho. One of the finest and most famous players of his generation. And above that, perhaps, one of the most instantly recognisable: that goofy grin framed by cascading ringlets. I know him, says the as yet undiscovered lifeform deep in the darkness of the Mariana Trench. That’s Ronaldinho. He’s Brazilian.

Now, let us consider the humble passport. Passports are fascinating and complicated documents, but at heart they all have two things in common. One, a picture of the owner’s face. Two, a note that identifies which country the owner comes from. Usually these are next to each other.

So let us suggest, perhaps, that of all the forms of fraud that Ronaldinho might try, the single most unwise, most ill-advised, most idiotically doomed form would be waving a fake passport around. One that claims he’s from Paraguay. After all, if one of the world’s most famous Brazilians had become Paraguayan, there’s no way every Paraguayan in the world wouldn’t have heard about it.

If the perfect crime exists, this is the farthest thing from it.

And so, of course, it happened, because we live in the nonsense timeline. And it didn’t work, because it never could have. And now he’s in the custody of the Paraguayan authorities, who we assume haven’t stopped laughing for a week. We don’t know much about the ins and outs of the Paraguayan legal system, or if he’ll end up in open court, but we have to assume the opening question will be: What the hell were you thinking?