Larry Ryan: Do we like the sound of football’s fake future?

Since lockdown quieted football, it’s never been as obvious that crowd reaction, as much as the commentary, shapes how we see a match.
Larry Ryan: Do we like the sound of football’s fake future?

In these unsettling times, when we only have the loosest grip on what is real, football fans are arguably better placed than most to cope.

Because we have our experiences in the transfer window to fall back on.

So we can go onto the internet relatively safely. Sure, we still encounter baffling things. We face half-truths and zero-truths and lies and chaos.

Every click turns up rogues and tricksters and bots, spreading rumours and seeding conspiracies and amplifying agendas. And we generally log off none the wiser.

But the football fan has seen it all before. All that carry on would be par for the course this time of year anyway, with the window open.

And those detective skills we have developed over the years are proving very useful to us now out in the unreal world.

If you have honed the instincts to tell whether a player is trying to ‘force a move’ or ‘get himself a better contract’, chances are you’ll be wiser to the tennis match of online chicanery from far right to far left.

And no doubt research will eventually prove that football fans were less likely to have forwarded fake news via WhatsApp during the pandemic.

We’d normally be knee-deep in that stuff, right now. The come-and-get-me pleas and love-to-stays would have begun.

But instead, we’re making final preparations for the return of truth. In a few short days, gaslighting and disinformation will be powerless in the face of the only measure of truth you can take to the bank: three precious points.

And yet a lot has changed since seven days ago, when we looked forward to a raw, stripped-down Premier League experience. Premier League Unplugged.

Where we’d hear every ‘man on’ and ‘fack’s sake’. When we’d find out what language David Luiz and Skodhran Mustafi use for inquests when they turn to each other in despair after Man City’s opener next Wednesday night.

But then there was Dortmund v Hertha in the Bundesliga. And the pleasing thuds of rhythmic German passing had been dulled by a low hum of generic crowd noise, inducing a slightly queasy sensation.

Though it was convincing enough to immerse Paul Dempsey, probably commentating from his sitting room.

“It’s all gone quiet now,” remarked Demps at one stage, with the visitors weathering the storm.

Then Sevilla v Betis in LaLiga’s return Thursday night upped the ante, painting in a fake crowd. Or a virtual crowd, as LaLiga TV would describe it. Though every change of camera angle called a fire drill.

It’s to “trick” the eyes, La Liga’s audiovisual director Melcior Soler told The Athletic, to “make you recall what you are used to seeing when the stadiums are full.”

And already we can detect the kind of forces we thought we’d leave behind when the first whistle blew. We are seeing the construction of another unreal world.

And when the pandemic is a distant memory, can we ever again truly believe what we're hearing.

BT Sport says piped in crowd noise will be the default for the Premier League, though you might be able to turn it off, depending on how you access the channel.

Sky Sports promises options. But for how long will they relinquish control to the punter? What happened to PlayerCam?

“When a team is on the attack, there is a special murmur; or when there is a shot at goal, disappointment among the fans,” says Soler.

But we don’t know yet how creative the match directors and sound engineers will be.

Since lockdown quieted football, it’s never been as obvious that crowd reaction, as much as the commentary, shapes how we see a match.

SO HOW hard will TV work to build an audiovisual narrative? The Sydney Morning Herald reports that TV Down Under has introduced ‘mild booing’ in the AFL, ahead of free kicks at goal. When rugby returns, that class of thing will, of course, be replaced by deathly ‘respectful’ silence, ideally finding some way to shush people at home too.

We hear precooked terrace chants will boom in stadiums after goals. But how many of the football crowd’s distinctive eruptions will be available?

Will TV replicate the howls of frustration when the same visiting player makes two tackles without getting a yellow? Can it capture the correct level of disgruntlement in the sarcastic wayhey when the ref finally books him?

How will we know what to appreciate without that ‘educated’ ripple when a sweeping pass changes the direction of play? Will there be the same generous recognition of a headed backpass to the goalkeeper?

Will the match director pick a scapegoat for the full up-off-your-seat ‘get him off’ treatment whenever he loses the ball? Does the home keeper earn a rumble of panic whenever he tries to ‘play it out’?

And when the home side goes 2-0 down, will they switch back to the listless hum we heard at Dortmund, to confirm the crowd has been lost?

Gary O’Keefe, the AFL executive producer for the Seven network, hopes the crowd noise will offer a “level of comfort” to viewers. Much like the white noise some people use to get their babies to sleep.

But does this need to soothe us, to help us recall what we’re used to seeing and hearing, not indicate a certain lack of faith in the viewer? A concern the TV audience is as beguiled by the packaging as the contents?

Maybe that concern is well placed.

Out there in the unreal world, much of the fakery we deal with is ultimately about fear. With so much TV money at stake, you can understand there being terror that we might just switch off.

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