Before the Holland vs Italy match at Euro 2008, the last professional football match I attended was in November 2006 when I saw Manchester United draw Chelsea 1-1 at Old Trafford. The reason why I haven’t seen any games in person since 2006 is because the nearest professional team to me is exactly 1,000 miles away from my home in Florida.

You could say I’ve watched a lot of football on TV in between that match and this past Monday’s Euro 2008 battle between the Dutch and Italians. As a rough estimate, I’ve probably watched more than 400 matches on TV during that time period.

So being at a professional match was a chance to view the occasion from a different perspective: TV versus reality.

The two different experiences are completely different. While sitting at my seat in the stadium, I was able to experience both TV and reality at the same time. If I wanted to see how the match looked live on TV, all I had to do was to look up at the giant TV screen above the goal. It was a little of a surreal experience being able to choose between both TV and reality.

When the match first kicked off, I spent the first 20 minutes or so watching the game unfold and ignored the giant TV screen. The game started with Holland having a lot of ball possession knocking the ball around their defense, to midfield and back around to their defenders again as they looked for a gap that was opened up by their wingers or Ruud van Nistelrooy up front.

After the excitement of being at the match subsided, I noticed that there were some major differences of watching a game in person:

  1. The game seemed to be played at a slower pace.
  2. The crowd seemed quieter.
  3. It was difficult to see how much space there was between players who were in the opposite half of the field from where I was sitting, and
  4. It was almost impossible to see what was happening in front of the other goal because of the defenders and other players blocking my view, especially in goalmouth scrambles.

In contrast, watching the game on TV (or in my case, the giant TV screen), the match seemed to be played at a faster pace, more like a video game, especially with the perspective of where the TV cameras were perched in the stadium as well as the overhead shots that are reminiscent of video games.

In person, the crowd sounded quieter than on TV and there were quiet spells during the game where both sets of fans didn’t sing and all you could hear was the buzz of the crowd chatting or making sounds. With the latest technology in speakers and sound equipment, the sound of football fans can be made to sound louder than what they actually are. The in person experience was disappointing and definitely not loud enough.

We’ve all been used to sitting or standing at a game and having a difficult time seeing what’s happening at the opposite end of the field. Up close, we can see the spaces between players and can better judge whether a pass can make it to a player on the same side. But when those type of passes and runs happen far away from our seats, our perspective is gone. It becomes very difficult to see really what is going on because it’s very difficult to judge how much space is really between players and the ball. Sitting higher up in the stadium will help with those sight lines, but then you’ll feel further away from the action on the field.

In the second half when Holland continued to attack the Italy half and tried to get a third goal to seal the victory, there were a few times where the ball was in the penalty area but I couldn’t see what was happening due to several players converging around that area blocking my view.

While there are many advantages of being at a football match in person, such as the being part of the experience, sharing it with thousands of other fans, taking part in the carnival atmosphere and being able to express yourself more completely, there are still many serious disadvantages.

I found myself watching more of the second half on the giant TV screen. When Holland attacked Italy, I was more easily able to see the distance between players and could better comprehend whether an attack had any chance of turning into a goal opportunity. The TV screens also had the advantage of showing close-ups of players as well as action replays.

In this particular match, with the controversial first goal by van Nistelrooy, it was more important than ever to see a TV replay to determine whether the goal should have been allowed or not. In the stadium, we were handicapped by only being able to see the replay once or twice and even then, it was difficult to see what really happened without the aid of a TV commentator pointing out what was happening. Imagine how the experience must have been for the referee and assistant referee who don’t see any TV replays at all during games!

While the experience of being at a professional match is definitely something one-of-a-kind, I find that its overrated especially when you realize the technological advances that the networks have made in producing live matches for television. Part of the appeal of being at a live match is one of bragging rights by fans. “I was there mate.” But seeing a match in person also appeals to our celebrity culture, where we can say that we saw players like Del Piero, Buffon, Matterazi and others in person. It’s almost like the Hollywood culture where people get more of a kick from seeing Paris Hilton in person than on screen. However, the movie watching experience is far greater than seeing the movie shot in person. Just as movies are able to add special effects and make the actors appear much larger in size, TV is able to heighten and capture the excitement of a football match and make it an even better experience than being at a match.

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