LONDON (AFP) – From cardboard cut-outs in the stands to Zoom watch parties, the return of the Premier League will be a bizarre experience for locked-out supporters.
The English top-flight resumes behind closed doors on Wednesday, with fans forced to adapt to an unsettling new normal due to the coronavirus.
Anyone watching the Bundesliga since German football’s return will have noticed the eerie silence in the stands and echoing shouts of players are not conducive to a riveting viewing experience.
In the absence of fans, the games often seem soulless and resemble reserve team fixtures rather than high-stakes encounters.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is certain the Premier League product will suffer from the lack of colour and passion provided by supporters.
“What makes it special in England is the way people react to the game,” Wenger told The Athletic.
“It is the best country in the world for the way the fans respond to what’s happening on the pitch.”
He added, “You realise that football without fans is not real…. Only one part of the spectacle is the players. You realise how much you miss the other part.”
Keen to salvage some of the vibrant atmosphere that makes English football so popular, Premier League chiefs set up the Broadcast Enhancement Advisory Group.
Clubs will reportedly be able to use video screens in stadiums to create “fan walls” made up of supporters on live video calls.
In Denmark, hundreds of fans were shown on a giant screen along one side of the Ceres Park stadium for the recent Superliga match between AGF Aarhus and Randers.
It is understood that Premier League clubs will also be allowed to play pre-recorded fan chants in stadiums to celebrate goals from the home team.
Piped-in crowd noise could also be used for substitutions, video assisted referee (VAR) appeals and the final whistle.
Teams can use “stadium dressing” – comprising fan imagery, flags and banners – to cover the seats in the lower tiers of stands, minimising the visual impact of empty arenas.
Several Premier League teams have been inspired by Bundesliga club Borussia Moenchengladbach, who used cardboard cut-outs of fans to fill around 13,000 seats in their stadium.
Brighton have offered supporters the chance to have personalised cut-outs, with some of the profits donated to charity.
“Supporters are encouraged to wear colours to create a stand full of blue and white,” the club said in a statement.
However, the cut-outs cannot “sit” next to the replicas of family and friends in the Amex Stadium.
West Ham and Wolves have had a similar idea, with fans told their pictures can be part of crowd mosaics.
Aston Villa have asked supporters to send in flags to fill the void at Villa Park.
Fans are taking matters into their own hands as well.
Leicester supporter Paul Rains has set up a website to give club members the chance to watch games together while enjoying a virtual version of the traditional matchday experience.
He told the BBC, “I’ll be using Zoom…. There’s the pre-match socialisation, followed by the game itself and then the post-match meltdown.
“I’ll be playing some well-known chants throughout the game, I’ll open the online chat for match banter and post in-game polls to get views on controversial decisions.”
Every one of the remaining 92 Premier League matches will be shown live in Britain, with broadcaster Sky Sports doing their bit to hide the drab atmosphere. At various points in games, fans watching on Sky will be able to vote on their favourite chants and they will be part of the audio mix on the broadcast.
Realistic crowd sounds and chants are being taken from the FIFA 20 computer game.
Other innovations include a Sky Fanzone, where up to six friends can have a video chat for the duration of the match.