The late, great Jock Stein once said “football without fans is nothing”, and his words have never been more apt than over the last 12 months.

Empty stadiums have exposed once and for all the importance of atmosphere and fan engagement in stadiums. While the shutdown has meant more games on TV, the spectacle has largely been a soulless experience. Yes, football is a business – a big one at that – but its heart, soul and reason for being are the fans that turn up week after week, whatever the weather.

Known in Germany as “geisterspiele" (literal translation - ghost game), seeing iconic stadiums around world stand empty while play continues has offered some of the most striking images of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not just football either. The recent Six Nations – one of the most partisan spectacles in world sport – was played in its entirety with no fans in attendance. And whilst the rugby on offer was one of the most exciting tournaments in recent memory, the fact no one was there to witness it was a sad indictment of current events.

“Playing without fans is like going to the circus and not seeing clowns; it’s like going to the garden and not seeing flowers,” commented Cristiano Ronaldo previously. The likes of Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola have had similar thoughts. 

But there is light at the end of the tunnel here in the UK, at least. This weekend’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium between Leicester City and Southampton will be the first of a number of government approved test events aimed at getting large crowds back by the summer, with 4,000 fans in attendance. Next weekend’s Carabao Cup final between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, also at Wembley, will be opened to 8,000 fans from the clubs, NHS workers and Brent residents.

Large stadiums have been soulless bowls for nearly a year now.

This all leads towards the potential for 21,000 fans to attend the FA Cup final in mid-May. Many remain hopeful that this will mean capacity crowds at Wembley towards the end of the European Championships in July, where the venue is due to host both semi-finals and the final.

Interestingly, research showed that home advantage remained largely the same as pre-pandemic levels and that empty stadiums didn’t mean a huge shift in the result of the away side. German Sport University Cologne looked at data from 40,000 men’s matches before and after the closure of stadiums, including more than 1,000 held behind closed doors across Europe.

They found that officials’ ‘bias’ towards the home side disappeared in the games played during lockdown, with fewer cards given to away teams than in games played in front of fans. Additionally, the number of away wins without fans increased just seven percent across Europe, which researchers said fell below the level of ‘statistical significance’. Further, the likelihood of home teams winning, losing or drawing barely changed in the Premier League, while the home team in the Bundesliga were 15 percent more likely to lose during the pandemic.

Fans of all sports have waited patiently over the last year to be welcomed back to their favourite stadium to watch their team. It now looks like we’re getting closer to that day, and it can’t come soon enough.