The Stadium as a Ritual of Intensity
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht




It must indeed be an addiction, I suppose, not just something “like” an addiction. A secondary addiction perhaps. To drive by stadiums I do not yet know, without being able to stop and ask if there are tours or other possibilities for inspecting the interior: this literally pains me, particularly if they are stadiums where famous teams play. My wife, our two daughters, and even our two sports-obsessed sons have thus always been ready to invest a considerable amount of time in avoiding the stadiums on our path when we first enter a city. On the one hand, they really have my best interests at heart. On the other, they are eager to protect themselves from the pertinent, high-pitched lectures which I simply cannot hold back, although I know that no one wants to hear them.

So it is a stroke of luck for everyone involved when I happen upon a stadium alone—or when I can take the time to get to know it by myself. This is what happened in the late 90s when I arrived in Buenos Aires to give a few lectures (to this day my primary reason for travel) and had reserved a long afternoon for the tourist attractions of “La Boca,” the former harbor district. La Boca has played a particular role in the history of tango, and the sometimes painted, sometimes weathered sheet metal façades of its houses conjure up the atmosphere of the late 19th century, a time when the city, under the onslaught of several waves of immigration, was on its way to becoming an international metropolis. At that time, many Europeans wanted to see in South America the continent, and in Argentina the country, the future. Above all, however, that part of Buenos Aires houses “La Bombonera,” the stadium of the Boca Juniors, which was inaugurated in 1940 and, together with River Plate, is the most successful and certainly most popular club in Argentinean soccer.

After the defending champion and gold medalist Uruguay, it was above all Argentina’s national team which put their sport on the path to an international fascination during the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. And even then, the Boca Juniors played on the spot where La Bombonera stands today. The (of course unofficial) name of the stadium can best be translated into English as “chocolate box,” and refers to three particularly steep sets of bleachers (in particular those behind the two goals) that look down onto a comparatively narrow playing field that barely meets the minimal size requirements of FIFA. This peculiar impression of depth only serves to underscore a flat forth side, originally open but now reserved for luxury suites. Such a more or less unplanned architecture, developed over the course of a century, also explains the acoustics that made La Bombonera famous, and notorious among visiting teams. More than the larger, architecturally more conventional Cancha Monumental from 1938, which belongs to Buenos Aires’s upper-class club and Boca’s rival River Plate, it is the space of La Bombonera that has witnessed the most colorful moments in the national history of soccer. Although Argentina won its first world championship against Holland in the “Monumental” in 1978, at the height of a merciless military dictatorship, it was in La Bombonera that Diego Armando Maradona became a star, and to this day he has a suite there. Beyond any comparison with Lionel Messi, Maradona has remained the most popular Argentinean player and is for me, together with Mané Garrincha from the Brazilian generation of 1958 and 1962, the ultimate embodiment of soccer charisma.

As fascinating as tango may be, I had of course come to La Boca because of the stadium, and so had preserved the highlight of the visit for the late afternoon. Dutifully, I purchased an entrance ticket for the Boca Juniors Museum—“dutifully,” considering my not particularly secret conviction that the movements of a sport and the intensity of stadium-happenings can hardly be conveyed by still-leathery balls or washed-out jerseys, and not even, as interesting as they sometimes may be, by the typically black-and-white documentaries which are displayed there on multiple screens (because they lack all suspense about the game’s end). The announcement that the last stadium tour of the day had already begun did not disturb me in the slightest. On the contrary, I knew that a well-placed tip of a rather modest (but nevertheless generous) nature would suffice to grant me, and me alone, access to the three sets of bleachers.

And so it happened. I can’t remember the exact amount of the australes (the Argentinian currency at the time), but the young man in navy-and-yellow overalls (the club colors) I gave them to immediately called me “Caballero” and activated all manner of courtesies which he was clearly not accustomed to using. La Bombonera overwhelmed me. The bleachers shot up so steeply that every step triggered the thrilling fear of stumbling, slipping, falling, while the last row above the goal furthest from the entrance offered a similarly steep view down to the field. It was here, really here, where the young Maradona had once played. Long history hung in the air above the stadium and became palpable as a sort of national weight, although I knew only a few names and dates. In my imagination the empty rows were filled with 50,000 fans and the sound of songs I had never heard.

But all at once the lights went out in the stadium, under the early evening sky. It never became clear to me whether this was due to one of the power outages that were common in Buenos Aires, or whether the employees of the Boca had simply forgotten me. I didn’t dare climb over the now-closed metal lattice gate which separated the playing field and bleachers from the ticket offices, shops, and the museum. And why should I have? Given the season, it wasn’t going to get cold overnight. In any case, the dangers I could not see or did not know about did not occur to me back then. So I settled in to sit, or lie in a cramped sort of way, halfway up the bleachers behind the far goal, and abandoned my fantasy to the most childlike wishes and images. Deep forward passes for Diego Maradona; singing with thousands of Boca fans in the late 1940s, the era of Juan Domingo, Evita Perón, and the great Alfredo di Stefano, who, admittedly, played for River. I was not bored for a single second of that night, and I must have been woken at some point by the early light and the crowing of great black birds (so suggests my memory). Ten hours alone in an empty stadium had been rather a dream come true than a nightmare; it felt as if I had become part of a story, as if the night had been my baptism and so my entrance ticket into a community. Soon I saw from afar the same man in navy-and-yellow overalls opening the gate. He seemed neither surprised nor shocked at my appearance, and I gave him a few more australes. “Gracias, Caballero.” It was not a problem to find a taxi which would take me back to the hotel in the city center, where breakfast was still being served.

By now I know that I am not alone in my craving for empty stadiums. As often as it is possible for someone who lives in California (so seldom more than once a year), I like to see Borussia Dortmund, the soccer team closest to my heart, playing in their famous stadium. The last few times I’ve been there, I’ve met up with my friend Jochen. Jochen—who watches the match VERY differently than I do, more analytically, more competently, and who, by the way, is not a Dortmund fan. I entered the lounge with him immediately after the game’s end, as the bearer of a ticket of a higher price category, and drank (what was for me) the second beer of the day (and year). Jochen then wanted to go back to the bleachers, something which was doable but not officially allowed. Simultaneously exhausted and excited, we both lit up another cigarette (also forbidden) and looked down at the playing field. An all but demonstrative emptiness now filled the stadium where just half an hour ago more than 80,000 people had been sitting or standing so as to fill the space completely, like a single mystic body. The lights were still shining with a dull warmth, but instead of the players’ beautiful movements they illuminated three or four employees repairing the turf at the edge of the field.

No other stadium activates for me (and for many others) such feelings of intensity as the Dortmund stadium, perhaps because no other bleachers are so black with people even half an hour before the start of the game. I never see empty spaces in the SÜD, the long set of standing bleachers behind one of the goals. In the second half of my life, I must confess (and this is quite a heavy confession for me indeed)—in the second half of my life, the American football team from Stanford University, where I taught for twenty-nine years, has come to be even dearer to my heart than Borussia. Every now and then I had a Stanford player in a seminar; some of them I even helped convince to study with and play for us. But although the beautiful, compact Stanford stadium with its more than 50,000 seats is sold out for every home game, some rows are always empty (season tickets are viewed by some alumni as donations). We fans are never loud enough, so much so that the fans of other teams have named our stadium “the library”—a fact which is very embarrassing to me.

For different reasons I was disappointed by a tour of the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium of Real Madrid, where in the mid-70s (a time when I was often in Spain) Günter Netzer and Vincente del Bosque played midfield—disappointed because the commentary of the tour guide, although interesting, and even the visit to the changing rooms, distracted from my imagination of the full stadium. By contrast, the Estadio Centenario of Montevideo has remained in my memory as being as thrilling as the Dortmund Stadium and La Bombonera. It opened in 1930, during the centennial celebrations of the country’s founding and exactly five days before the finale of the first world championships, won by Uruguay on July 30 in a 4:2 match against Argentina in front of 93,000 spectators. Here as well, I was overcome by the feeling that I had become part of a story I hardly knew, a story hidden in the walls that had adopted me.

But how can I explain—and not just describe—the fascination of empty stadiums? It’s noteworthy that the most famous stadiums are hardly ever to be found on the periphery of cities, as one would expect for practical reasons. Instead, they have often been overtaken, quite literally, by the development of their cities; during the past few decades a tendency has even emerged to bring new stadiums right into the urban centers despite the high cost of real estate. There the unceasing animation of everyday life surrounds spaces which remain closed and silent except on game days. They have become a secular variation of the sacral space, set apart (this is the exact meaning of the Latin word sacer) and reserved for the relatively brief moments when rituals are consummated within them—such as and above all, in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages and the Catholic churches of today, during the production of “God’s real presence” in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

In spite of the affinity between stadiums and places of worship, I am in no way calling for a renewal of the all too ingenious (and hardly applicable) thesis that today’s spectator sports have become the functional equivalent of religion. Like the emptiness and silence of the cathedral, the emptiness of the stadium during the week marks a contrast to the intensity of its recurrent moments of ritual—here, the time of the game. But much more clearly than religious spaces, and in multiple ways, the stadium marks the border between the inside, as a place of the ritual happening, and the different layers of outer worlds. On a game day, we pass through the turnstile into the stadium and find our own assigned place; the teams come out to warm up on the empty field, another threshold—and leave again for their final preparations in the dressing rooms; then they return together to the playing field, emphasize the imminent start of the game by singing (particularly in the United States), and repeat the double transgression of the boundary, back and forth, once more at the beginning and end of the halftime, before leaving the field at the end of the game for the last time.

During the game, however—and here lies the truly decisive contrast with religions and places of worship—the interior of the stadium becomes a compact stage, where a condensed form of earthly existence is played out; nothing could be less transcendental. After the start of the game (kick off, bully)—an expected part of the ritual yet incisive each time as an event—processes of decision, strategy, fate, and resonance take place, advancing upon us and retreating. Everything, all of life, including we ourselves, seems congregated in the stadium, and for a limited span the fullness of life and Being stands in irremovable opposition to the emptiness of the stadium during the week. In this doubleness the stadium makes present as an atmosphere what Martin Heidegger once called the “ultimate” philosophical question, a question impossible to be answered by men: the question, that is, why there is something and not nothing. To “make present” this question does not mean, of course, to “portray” or “represent” it. Games in a stadium are neither metaphors nor allegories for philosophical situations or problems—nothing would be more detrimental to the intensity of experience in the stadium than the very different intensity of philosophical reflection. But just as La Bombonera allowed me to become for a night a part of stories whose names and dates I did not know, so a feeling of unconditional, ultimate relevance belongs to the spectators’ concentration on the game, a feeling that resembles the grandeur distilled in the ultimate philosophical question.

And so a stadium event without spectators cannot exist, if only because this event, as a ritual of the fullness of life, depends on the contrast with the empty stadium—to whose special status belongs, in turn, the imagined abundance of spectators. In comparison, the noisy support of the players by the fans is a minor matter (and statistics show that the effectiveness of any so-called home advantage is decreasing today). Certainly, we can follow and analyze a game without spectators in the media (and even in the stadium), but then it is not, in its reality and its effect on the screen-spectator (both ontologically and existentially), what it can and should be as a ritual. And even under the premise of the specific potential of the stadium event, it is obvious that the masses, the thousands in the stadium, do not act like a vast collection of individuals whose conduct is the result of the average of many individual behaviors.

The stadium presents (but does not elucidate) the behavior of the masses as a phenomenon of difference which may be experienced quite regularly, but which perhaps has never been adequately explained. My reflections thus concern themselves with the terms, theses, and arguments necessary to understand a specific type of human behavior—the behavior of the masses. This has been an interest of mine for a long time, not only because I am addicted to empty stadiums, but also because I have spent some of the best moments of my life as a part of their crowds—for example in the SÜD standing bleachers in Dortmund. I have never felt threatened there, as much as stadium employees and even friends have sought to remind me, in my ever-advancing years, that this cannot be my place anymore. On the other hand, however, I don’t want to romanticize the stadium crowd with misty eyes, as it were. It is impossible to deny their affinity to acts of collective violence; perhaps this is the only form belonging to the behavior of the masses of which we can be empirically certain. But for the time being I abide by my hunch that the outbursts of violence which feature in any description of mass behavior are not the whole story.

As I said, this topic has been important to me for a long time, but it gained—particularly in Germany—a doubled actuality and priority in the weeks in which I wrote (and had long intended to write) this essay, during the spring of 2020. In the early awareness of the threat posed by the coronavirus, there was a first period of global transition where stadium events were replaced, primarily for financial reasons (so as to reap the profits of media transmission), by so-called Geisterspiele (“ghost games”)—that is, matches in a stadium without spectators. Soon afterwards sports events were fully suspended for several weeks, then resumed hesitantly and again without spectators, until the present moment, where small crowds are being admitted back into the stadiums at 10 to 30 percent capacity. What we do not yet know is the possible long-term effects of this development. Has the groundwork been laid for a call to banish spectator sports permanently to empty stadiums in the post-coronavirus world? This may become an inevitable consequence of the experience which now confronts us, and will, if it really comes to it, change our relationship with spectator sports more fundamentally than we can now imagine.

In Germany’s specific case, the first considerations about the use of Geisterspiele to counter the risk of infection happened at the same time as a new eruption of the heated confrontation between the franchises of the Soccer National League (the Bundesliga) on the one side and, on the other, the unconditionally loyal and tendentially violent fan groups who like to call themselves Ultras. In a series of concerted efforts the Ultras of various teams had, in a nearly literal sense of the word, targeted the sponsor of 1899 Hoffenheim, SAP software billionaire Dietmar Hopp. I write “in a nearly literal sense” because the fans of multiple stadiums had displayed posters that depicted Hopp’s head behind a cross-hair. The dignitaries of the German Soccer Federation, leading managers of the franchises, and even a large portion of the players reacted as if the fans had actually shot at Hopp—and demanded an apology, together with the immediate cessation of the campaign. One such apology was delivered, in a tit-for-tat, by the Shalke 04 Ultras, who formally made their excuses to all prostitutes for having called Hopp a “whoreson bastard.”

But the confrontation is no longer really about Dietmar Hopp, and has not been for a long time. He is still a part of the dispute, but only as a distinct symbol, a symbolic target for antipathy—not as its true subject. Instead, what has emerged beyond the club rivalries is a feeling on the part of the Ultras, as strong as it is vague, that the presence and modes of behavior they bring to the stadiums are no longer welcome there. And nobody has a description of the presence and behavior of stadium crowds that is precise or careful enough for the resulting necessary discussion. Instead, the exclusive focus of managers and administrators on the crowds’ (and the Ultras’) potentiality for violence, together with the propensity of all masses to express themselves differently than in words, has made any productive debate impossible. In this book I am concerned with such a possibility of describing and also, in some partial way, of understanding.