No sport has suffered more from fans’ absence from stadiums than soccer. In American pro sports, spectators tend to just sit there and watch their teams break it down, to the point that piped-in crowd noise on, say, an NBA broadcast doesn’t feel all that uncanny anymore. This is not the case for a competition like the English Premier League, and no matter how finely textured broadcasters can make their canned noise, nothing quite captures the feel of a real crowd, of real people’s voices rising and falling with the action. That’s why the experience of watching this past weekend’s FA Cup Final, played in front of 21,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, was so thrilling, and it’s also why, perversely, the sequence of events that decided the result felt so deflating and wrong.
Leicester City took home the cup, thanks in part to some Kasper Schmeichel magic, to Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel’s decision not to start Christian Pulisic, and to a pair of VAR decisions. The Foxes lost starting center back Jonny Evans to an injury in the first half, though they managed to resist Chelsea’s pressure even as they had about half as much of the ball as their opponents. In the 63rd minute, Leicester attacker Ayoze Pérez staunched a Reece James clearance with the help of his forearm. The ball settled, and as both sides flowed towards the Chelsea goal, Youri Tielemans found himself with the space to wallop one in from range.
This was the perfect goal for the occasion, underscored immediately after hitting the back of the net by a sea of fists flying into the air. This sort of sudden explosion of emotion is exactly what has been missing for more than a year now. Watching soccer without fans has, at times, tipped into the uncanny valley. Without people reacting to each meaningful play and modulating their intensity as the game flows, even when the action on the pitch is impressive, there’s a spark missing, one that elevates any game from something potentially rote into a genuinely captivating performance. If you watch the sport for purely technical reasons, maybe you wouldn’t have ruled the difference a meaningful one, but the theater of it all is one of the best parts of the sport.
After the Tielemans banger, Chelsea ratcheted up the intensity and subbed on a platoon of offensively minded players. The camera cut back and forth between Leicester fans alternating between bouts of euphoria and quaking nervousness, and to Chelsea fans trying and largely failing to keep a cool head. The tension built throughout the half, interrupted only by a few eye-widening Jamie Vardy runs, and it peaked when Chelsea put three shots on goal. Two of them were saved by Schmeichel, but in the 88th minute, Thiago Silva clipped an arcing ball to Ben Chilwell as he made an incisive run to the box. The ball ping-ponged around off of three people before plopping into the net. After half an hour of roiling anxiety, Chelsea fans finally had their turn to go nuts.
There’s nothing more satisfying, I’d argue, than a goal at or near the death. I still cannot watch John Brooks’s winner for the USMNT against Ghana in the 86th minute of their World Cup game without shaking a little. Chelsea fans got to hoot, holler, and marvel at Chilwell’s breakthrough moment for just a few short minutes, until they got doused by a big bucket of cold water. A VAR check ruled that Chilwell was offside by a thin margin. The left back appeared to be level with Leicester’s furthest defender on replays at every speed, though a little bit of his body was more advanced than any part of the Leicester defender’s body.
Is this something anyone likes? For the neutral, there’s no solace to be found in the mathematical correctness of the decision. Setting aside the particulars of the offside rule and the new handball rules that probably would have permitted Pérez’s handball to stand even if it was checked, a video review system that throws every goal into cosmic uncertainty is death to theater. Soccer is a sport defined by pivotal moments, impossibly athletic feats like Tielemans’s strike or stunning deliverances like Chilwell’s goal. Those moments won’t hit nearly as hard if their outcomes are always subject to Byzantine delays and scrutiny of a phony level of precision. Hearing and seeing fans ride the final’s waves was a welcome treat, a sign that one of the best parts of the sport is not far off. Too bad the ending was ruined by robots.