Teams who rely on their home support are struggling this year. Millwall are many things, but one thing that is indisputable about the Lions is that they use the Den to their advantage; the baying of their supporters to push them over the line where they may otherwise struggle. This season, even including a couple of games when they had a number of THOSE fans, it has not been possible. As a result, they have won just once at home all season, and drawn four of the last five. They even lost 0-3 to a Huddersfield side who are going some way to redefine unpredictable.
Of course, there are fans present now in certain countries, and things appear just about normal. In Japan, one has seen socially distanced fans for a large portion of the resumed J-League season, and its second and third-tier siblings, too. Transport must be possible, also, as there was a clutch of Vanraure Hachinohe fans who had made the trip to see their side win in Tottori in November, and that isn’t a trip for the weak.
A little encouragement might light a fire
Japanese football is a positive environment; the most noticeable sound coming from the stands has been rhythmic clapping.
In Italy, however, they are still without fans. Indeed, certain clubs like Genoa and Torino might be blessed that they’re not being booed off every week, but a little encouragement might light a fire under Fiorentina from time to time; the world’s smallest violin being played for the world’s lamest Viola.
Drop down a level, and it is even more apparent. There are clubs in Serie B that are known as much for their fanbase as their football and, contrary to what you might expect, they are thriving.
Lecce have always benefited from home advantage at the Stadio Via Del Mar, the sheer geography of teams having to visit Salento working in their favour often. However, it has the opposite effect when they go away. The Lupi are doing well this year, but not fabulously, as they look to regain Serie A status at the first time of asking.
Salernitana vs Virtus Entella
Twenty years since a last-day draw at Piacenza saw them dumped back into Serie B, prompting riots and clashes with police, Salernitana might be showing signs of returning. The 1998/98 season was a disaster, culminating in four supporters losing their lives as a train carrying them back to Salerno was set alight — one of Italian football’s biggest tragedies of modern times. It also led to several changes in the way supporters could travel away from home.
On Monday evening, Salernitana faced Virtus Entella, looking to go to the top of the table against a side rooted to the bottom of it. 2020/21 has taken an unexpected turn for both sides, who were rated similarly before the season kicked off, but find themselves with very different targets now.
Entella’s only wins this campaign came in the Coppa Italia, and they went to Salerno on a run of five straight defeats, including every match in December. Merry Christmas.
The Granata were not in the best form themselves, without a win in three games (albeit a couple were against fellow promotion hopefuls Lecce and Frosinone) but looked a certainty.
Salerno is down in Campania, not far from Naples, and its supporters are akin to what one might expect from Napoli, only more starved of success, and with no god to pray to.
In a regular season, attendances would fluctuate between 10,000 and 20,000. Benevento drew almost that many last season, but the effect of Covid 19 in Italy has meant only 100 fans have seen football at the Stadio Arechi this year.
Neither the Curva Sud nor the Curva Nord contained a soul
You could almost feel the absence of fans as a presence at the Stadio Arechi at kickoff. The vast plastic screens that prevent balls being lost in the crowd, and things being thrown onto the pitch, still stand, protecting only seats, and reflecting the floodlights.
Neither the Curva Sud nor the Curva Nord contained a soul, that Perspex preventing the need for even a ballboy. When there would usually be a roar at kickoff, the only noise that could be ascertained was Fabrizio Castori urging his side on.
His side started on the front foot, Andre Anderson and Gennaro Tutino looking lovely up top, with the veteran Walter Lopez adding to their number down the left-hand side. Salernitana fans do not typically chant in the way English fans might, but the success they were enjoying would have earned the noise.
There was a spell midway through the first period where Entella struggled to clear, and the ball seemed magnetised to Salernitana feet.
Every time it came out of the area, a Granata player pinged it back in, be it cross or shot. The goal was not just coming; it was due. It arrived not long before half time, but if you were waiting with your camera by Alessandro Russo’s goal, you would have had to use the long-range lens.
The Diavoli Neri broke quickly after thirty-seven minutes, and in a flash the venerable Matteo Mancosu found himself through on goal, dinking a gorgeous deft shot over the on-rushing Vid Belec. 0-1.
This is when fans are missed, stirring up an atmosphere to urge the home team to strike back, making sure that the visitors feel unwelcome and unappreciated.
The shouting from the benches increased, the encouragement from the Salernitana players grew, but they still went into the break trailing.
Castori switched things up at the break, introducing Milan Djuric and Emanuele Cicerelli, for Gondo and the (slightly unlucky) Anderson.
It paid instant dividends, as Tutino reaped the rewards for his first-half display with a neat header to bring the sides level. Another roar would follow from the Stadio Arechi faithful, but again nothing came.
It took another twenty minutes of Salernitana turning the screw before they got the reward they deserved. Cicerelli was brought down for a penalty that Djuric converted to make Castori look like a genius. Though they were given a few nervy moments with the 2-1 lead, Salernitana held on to go top of the table and left the field top of the table at full time to, well, silence.
Yes, they had come back from a goal down, yes they had found their form and achieved a good result, but under the lights of Salerno, with a packed Stadio Arechi, this would be the kind of match that would make children fall in love with the game, with a team, with a player, Gennaro Tutino.
Instead, it felt like a side going through a dull routine.
Football without fans is not nothing, but you don’t half miss them when they’re not there.