The Premier League is officially back. It's only been 12 short weeks since the end of the previous campaign, but it's been 17 months that have felt like a lifetime since we last saw the league as it was meant to be experienced, inside stadiums packed with baying fans. And while the typically short break between seasons is somehow always enough to replenish the reserves of excitement and hope and passion, it's those long months without the rocking atmosphere fans in the stands bring to the game that made this weekend feel like the return of something much more significant.
The impact of fans' return to the stadiums was striking, even for a spectator sitting in a quiet apartment watching images beamed from thousands of miles away. As someone prone to embarrassingly dramatic gesticulations and yelps while watching sports even in normal times, I noticed myself reacting even more strongly than usual over the weekend. Though the journey was long from the stadium to my TV, the energy the fans brought to these Premier League matches didn't lose an iota of its electrifying power along the way.
And it's not just the viewing experience that the fans' presence made different and better. You could see the effect in the matches themselves. Like when Chelsea defender Trevoh Chalobah thumped in a fantastic goal to mark his full debut for the club he came up in, and was so overcome with emotion that he almost immediately burst into tears.
Or when Everton's Abdoulaye Doucouré responded to his late go-ahead goal against Southampton by ripping off his jersey and celebrating in front of the home fans, some of whom were so pumped that they hopped onto the pitch to hug him.
Or when Leicester City's Jamie Vardy capped his nifty goal against visiting Wolverhampton by running over to the crowd and howling like a wolf, clearly delighted to have delighted the fans with his trollish move.
And even outside the action on the field, like this Brentford fan who got to watch as his club marked its return to England's top division after an absence of three-quarters of a century with an instantly iconic 2–0 victory over Arsenal, which brought the man to tears.
Or when Tottenham fans celebrated a commanding win over Manchester City, the club that is trying to steal Spurs' best player, by chanting "Are you watching, Harry Kane?"
These are just some of the moments over the weekend that bear the unmistakable imprint of the fans, which the game has missed so dearly during the pandemic. Soccer is a sport that forces individuals into interactions with people (both teammates and opponents), an object (the ball), and nature (the weather and the state of the pitch), all under the confinements of the game's rules. If those are the sport's ingredients, then the public in the stands is the fire beneath the cauldron that gets everything inside churning and changing. Fans are a crucial element in what makes the game what it is. Seventeen months of silent stadiums and canned crowd noise and muted goal celebrations made fans' already obvious importance even more evident, and I for one couldn't possibly be happier to have them back.