With AS Roma having been sentenced to play two UEFA Champions League home games behind closed doors for incidents during their Matchday 1 meeting with FC Dynamo Kyiv, uefa.com's Massimo Gonnella joined the media contingent which watched Roma take on Bayer 04 Leverkusen at an empty Stadio Olimpico.
By Massimo Gonnella
Arriving at Rome's present day colosseum was somewhat surreal. Gone was the usual traffic gridlock on the way to the stadium and the streets were bereft of the chants of the tifosi and their excited pre-match chatter.
While a television audience of millions would watch the match live, entrance to the stadium was strictly limited and I joined the select few - club officials, media representatives and security staff - who all had to enter through the only open gate, with their names checked off an official list of names like a guest list at a celebrity club.
The scenario became even more surreal as I took my place inside the stadium: empty stands, no fans, no chants, no colours, just a few banners and flags placed opposite the main stand.
Such 'behind closed doors' matches are not a new development and the punishment was commonplace in the 1980s with Juventus FC and Real Madrid CF among the clubs so punished. Having previously removed this sanction from its disciplinary regulations, UEFA re-introduced it more recently and it has been applied six times in the past three years. Now it would be applied in a high-profile UEFA Champions League match.
Sounds of silence
The teams entered the pitch accompanied by the usual UEFA Champions League music, but even the familiar anthem sounded different. During the match itself, the players' shouts and coaches' instructions were clearly audible and even the referee could be heard explaining his decisions to the players. Some of the club officials in the VIP tribune applauded the efforts on goal, while it was the radio and TV commentators' raised voices and not the fans' cheers that told when a team was nearing goal.
The strange setting affected the players too. When Dimitar Berbatov scored the opening goal he ran towards the corner flag to salute the fans before suddenly stopping his celebrations. "It was like my early years, in youth football, when a handful of spectators came to watch your games," he said. Leverkusen coach Klaus Augenthaler concurred: "It was like at the beginning of your career when you could listen to your father or mother commenting on the action." Bernd Schneider added: "For us there has certainly been an advantage to play without their supporters. They would certainly have pushed their team a bit more."
And Roma certainly felt punished. Defender Luigi Sartor said: "The support from our fans in this stadium is unique. Having to play without them has been depressing." Traianos Dellas added: "It has not been easy for us to play in these conditions. But when the referee started the match, I tried to concentrate on the game." Goalkeeper Carlo Zotti said: "It was a very strange feeling to play like that. In a match like this, the fans could certainly have given us an important boost."
On 8 December, AS Roma, who cannot now reach the last 16, will be home alone again when they face Madrid in their final appearance in this season's competition. The match will therefore have little importance for the home team. Maybe that will be some small consolation for Roma fans having to follow their idols once again on television.
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