THAT over a billion of us tuned in to see a Bundesliga game played in front of an empty stadium shows how much the world missed top-class, live football.
After a rather timid start, the game quickly reverted to form and Erling Braut Haaland picked up the scoring where he laid off 67 days ago, Borussia Dortmund won comfortably 4-0 and Schalke managed to perform worse than they looked. Plus ca change. But while the players and the result looked familiar, the match itself and the atmosphere in which it was played was completely alien.
The pandemic games of the returning Bundesliga are been keenly watched by the soccer world and by most other professional sports, as the Germans use their league as a guinea pig to set down the groundwork for sports return as the worldwide lockdown slowly unwinds across the jurisdictions. Indeed US sporting franchises were reportedly straight on the phone to the German clubs to gauge the experience and difficulties encountered by their Teutonic counterparts.
Bundesliga teams and staff members have been under quarantine for the week leading up to the return of play and have had multiple coronavirus tests.
Ahead of the game, it required several buses to transport the teams, staff, and equipment to the stadium. There were no changes to the rules as a result of the pandemic, but outside of play, there are many new protocols and considerations needed to keep the show on the road. For one, there are up to 30 matchday balls available during the game. As a ball goes out of play it is replaced by a disinfected ball, while the old sphere is immediately cleansed before it can be returned to action.
Everyone not on the pitch, subs and coaches, must wear a face mask (except for the head coach who needs to roar his instructions unfettered) and must sit on the bench two meters apart. Subs were allowed to remove their masks when warming-up but put them back on if they sat back down. Players being substituted from play were also immediately given a mask as they came off the field.
Before the game, the starting players lined-up as usual but forgot about the frivolous ‘FairPlay’ handshake which is something we might retain if we return to normal action someday.
So, in the Dortmund-Schalke game, Haaland scored the opening goal of the post-lockdown Bundesliga with a typically instinctive finish to the net from an exquisite pass from Thorgan Hazard. What followed was far from typical though. The goal celebration was a physically-distant moment of a rather awkward jubilation out by the corner flag. Haaland did a little bit of a dance step followed by a peculiar and rather rigid standing ovation by his teammates at the requisite two metres distance.
But not all the celebrations went so ‘cleanly’. Hertha Berlin captain, Vedad Ibisevic, took some stick for hugging teammates Maximilian Mittelstädt and Matheus Cunha after scoring the second of the side’s three-goals in their win over Hoffenheim.
Another Hertha player, Dedryck Boyata was forced into a social media apology for what looked like a kiss on the cheek of Liverpool loanee Marko Grujic. Boyata said he wasn’t kissing Grujic but rather was whispering information ahead of a free-kick.
There seems to be a strange contradiction here where you can have minimal distance and even full-body contact with your opponent while playing but you can't touch your teammates seconds later to celebrate a goal.
You have to keep two metres apart on the sideline as a sub but then a minute later you can have a sweat-covered, spitting and puffing opponent all over your back when you take to the field. Then, if you are lucky to score, you are expected to step away again from the teammates (you've been quarantined a week with) to celebrate even though in the run-up to the goal you may have been just centimetres away from the very same players. It requires immense self-control and presence of mind to control emotions in the moment of celebration.
Ibisevic summed it up well, "As for my goal celebrations: We've been waiting a long time to play again, then you score - you live for such moments as a striker, so it was very difficult for me personally to keep control of my emotions. I'm sorry that I couldn't manage that at that moment, but we are passionate footballers and not robots."
The passion for the game among the players was clear over the weekend which is more than can be said for the stands. The matches were played in the echoing chasms of the immense Bundesliga stadiums and the atmosphere was sadly lacking as a result.
A total of 213 people were allowed into the Dortmund game including medics and the media with everyone required to give their temperature before entry was granted. Hardly the recipe from a throbbing atmosphere.
The club anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was pumped out over the stadium PA in an attempt to bring a bit of life to proceedings, but it had none of the fizz and electricity when the stadium’s synonymous 'Wall' bellows it at full voice before the game.
The matches over the weekend were played with every thump of the ball, every crunching tackle, clearly heard through our TV screens. And while the goals were of their usual technical and
aesthetically high standard, in the hollowed-out atmosphere of the empty stadiums the experience of watching the game, even on TV, was dramatically inferior.
Don't get me wrong the return of football in the Bundesliga is definitely welcome and a vital experiment for the rest of the sporting world. But what was made clear from last weekend’s action is the veracity of the truism, 'that football without fans is nothing'.