One year without fans – The impact of empty stadiums on LaLiga

Betis stadium
Betis stadium via Anual, CC BY-SA 4.0

The completion of Sevilla’s Wednesday night game with Elche, means all teams have now played 27 times in LaLiga 2020/21. It also marks 38 matchdays, the equivalent of one full season, since Spanish football returned behind closed doors in June of last year.

Real Betis’ 2-1 victory over Real Madrid at the Benito Villamarin on March 8th 2020 was the last time supporters were present at a Spanish top flight game. Betis were also involved when football returned three months later but their derby with Sevilla, would be the first of 380 matches since the 2019/20 season restarted, to have taken place with no fans in attendance.

A repeat of that fixture at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on Sunday evening, marked an unwanted milestone for football fans in Spain. We’ve all grown accustomed to watching football behind closed doors over the past year, but particularly on derby day, the emptiness of Spain’s famous old grounds really hits home.

In terms of the clubs and football as a whole, there have been few winners from this period. All clubs have been hit hard in terms of lost revenue and that has certainly been reflected by the relative lack of transfer expenditure in the last two windows, at both big and small Spanish clubs. On the pitch though, inevitably some clubs have been hit harder than others in terms of adapting to this strange new environment.

LaLiga standings since the 2019/20 season restarted without fans

Position Team 2019/20 Points – Final 11 games 2020/21 Points – First 27 games Total Points
1 Atletico Madrid 25 63 88
2 Real Madrid 31 57 88
3 Barcelona 24 59 83
4 Sevilla 23 54 77
5 Villarreal 22 40 62
6 Real Sociedad 10 45 55
7 Granada 18 36 54
8 Levante 16 35 51
9 Real Betis 8 42 50
10 Athletic Club 14 34 48
11 Osasuna 18 29 47
12 Celta Vigo 11 34 45
13 Valencia 11 30 41
14 Real Valladolid 13 26 39
15 Eibar 15 22 37
16 Getafe 8 28 36
17 Alaves 7 23 30

Each team has played 38 games. Newly promoted/relegated teams excluded.

The overall standings since Spanish football returned last June makes for interesting reading. Heading into the restart, Barcelona were top of LaLiga and favourites to win the 2019/20 title with 11 games to go. Atletico Madrid were down in 6th (a point behind Getafe!) and faced a battle just to make the Champions League places.

Nine months on, this congested period of football action has largely been dominated by the Madrid clubs. Real Madrid won their first 10 matches on their return to win last season’s LaLiga. After a quick turnaround, Atleti were quick to establish themselves as the team to beat in 2020/21, collecting 50 points from their first 19 games.

However it does feel like we have experienced something of a momentum shift in recent weeks and Barcelona, despite problems on and off the pitch, have only collected five fewer points than Los Blancos and Atleti over the past 38 games.

The most striking demises have been suffered by Getafe and Valencia, who were both chasing Champions League qualification at this stage in the 2019/20 season. They’ve collected just 36 and 41 points respectively in the 38 games since.

The above table will also make particularly unpleasant reading for Alaves fans. Including caretaker boss Juan Muñiz, who ultimately steered them to safety last term, they’ve had four different coaches over this period but have only collected 30 points, six fewer than any other team who have been in the top flight for the duration.

Alaves stadium
Alaves stadium via Aitorval, CC BY-SA 4.0

LaLiga home points since the 2019/20 season restarted without fans

Position Team Home Games Home Points Points Per Home Game
1 Atletico Madrid 19 46 2.42
2 Real Madrid 19 46 2.42
3 Sevilla 20 45 2.25
4 Barcelona 19 41 2.16
5 Granada 20 34 1.7
6 Real Betis 18 30 1.67
7 Valencia 18 30 1.67
8 Villarreal 19 31 1.63
9 Athletic Club 19 30 1.58
10 Levante 20 30 1.5
11 Real Sociedad 19 28 1.47
12 Celta Vigo 19 27 1.42
13 Getafe 19 24 1.26
14 Osasuna 19 24 1.26
15 Real Valladolid 19 22 1.16
16 Elche 13 15 1.15
17 Alaves 19 18 0.95
18 Cadiz 14 13 0.93
19 Eibar 19 17 0.89
20 Huesca 13 11 0.85

Relegated teams excluded.

Adjusting to life behind closed doors has been a challenge for all clubs but initial suspicions that any notion of home advantage would be removed haven’t been realised over a longer period. So far in the 2020/21 season, the overall win percentage stands at 41% for home teams and 29% for away teams.

In the last full campaign played with fans (2018/19), the respective win ratios were 44% for home teams and 27% for away teams. A small difference but not as great as many suspected it would be.

The teams hurt most have perhaps been the newly promoted clubs which often rely on the energy of excitable home fans to spur them on as they adjust to life at a higher level. You certainly suspect Cadiz may have collected more home points had fans been present on their long awaited return, although they may also have found it more difficult to put that stunning sequence of early season away wins together.

The likes of Alaves, Eibar and Osasuna, all of which have tight grounds where fans are close to the pitch, also appear to have suffered more than most from the absence of supporters.

LaLiga home points per game averages since the start of 2019/20 – with fans vs without

Home points per game with fans Home points per game without fans Difference
Sevilla 1.64 2.25 +0.61
Atletico Madrid 2.07 2.42 +0.35
Celta Vigo 1.31 1.42 +0.11
Real Madrid 2.38 2.42 +0.04
Real Betis 1.71 1.67 -0.04
Villarreal 1.69 1.63 -0.06
Real Valladolid 1.23 1.16 -0.07
Osasuna 1.43 1.26 -0.17
Athletic Club 1.85 1.58 -0.27
Granada 2 1.7 -0.3
Levante 1.85 1.5 -0.35
Eibar 1.27 0.89 -0.38
Valencia 2.14 1.67 -0.47
Getafe 1.79 1.26 -0.53
Real Sociedad 2 1.47 -0.53
Alaves 1.64 0.95 -0.69
Barcelona 2.86 2.16 -0.7
Average 1.82 1.61 -0.21

Newly promoted/relegated teams excluded. Also note that Eibar vs Real Sociedad in LaLiga 2019/20 (pre lockdown) was also played without fans and that is reflected in these figures.

When comparing the points per game ratios with and without fans, only four clubs have done better at home since normal life in Spain ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak last March. Surprisingly, the club that has enjoyed the biggest upward swing in terms of their home record is Sevilla – widely regarded to have the noisiest supporters and one of the most intimidating stadiums in LaLiga. However that can largely be attributed to their general improvements over the past nine months given their away form has also been pretty impressive.

Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Celta Vigo have also on average collected more home points since LaLiga went behind closed doors. The latter two rises in particular can also mostly be explained by tactical or personnel tweaks and enhancements, but Real Madrid are a bit more of a mystery. Their marginal improvement has come not just without fans but at a different stadium with the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano having been their home for the duration of the last nine months.

Barcelona have statistically suffered the most from the absence of supporters although their previous average of 2.86 points per home game was always going to be very tough to maintain.

football fans
Athletic fans outside San Mames during more normal times in 2019.

All supporters will argue that their club is suffering without home support. Overall, looking at these figures, it’s perhaps followers of the Basque clubs who might have the strongest case and that’s something that doesn’t come as a great surprise given the region is home to what are traditionally some of the most hostile grounds in Spanish football for visiting teams.

Alaves (-0.69) and Real Sociedad (-0.53) in particular appear to be suffering in their now empty stadiums. In terms of playing personnel changes, there haven’t been wholesale alterations at either club to the extent that would explain such dips. La Real in particular, are more or less at the same overall level as they were this time last year. However both clubs really do appear to be struggling to chalk up those all important home wins without supporters in attendance.

Eibar (-0.38), Athletic Club (-0.27) and Osasuna (-0.17) have also seen a downturn in their home results. The return of supporters, hopefully at some point in 2021, is something anyone who loves football is looking forward to, but it certainly feels as though it will take on an extra significance for the cluster of Basque clubs who appear to be missing their 12th man more than most.


Featured image of Benito Villamarin via Anual, CC BY-SA 4.0

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1538 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has also lived in Seville and Barcelona and has written extensively about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer.