It may have been surreal in the extreme with no fans, no atmosphere, substitutes socially distancing and wearing masks but this weekend after two very long months we finally got football back, or at least something that resembled the football we used to know and love. Of course, we all knew that if anyone could bring back sport in the bizarre situation that the world finds itself in, it would be the Germans. I for one football obsessive am more than happy that they managed to pull it off.
The powers that be in Germany, both within the Government and the football authorities themselves, seem to have put themselves in a somewhat better prepared position to allow the return of some form of normality. From the beginning of the crisis we have heard how Germany’s extensive testing capability, well-funded public healthcare system, and their enviable capacity of critical care beds have meant that they have managed, to an extent, to avoid the worst of the pandemic in comparison to most of the rest of us, the United Kingdom and especially England very much included.
Of course Germany weren’t the first, the K-League in South Korea, another country who seems to have weathered the pandemic better than most, started last weekend but has nowhere near the global presence of the Bundesliga, but both have shown a way forward for the rest of the football world about how the game we all love might start to get back on its feet.
To bring back the Bundesliga, the German Football League (DFL) led by chief executive Christian Seifert and the clubs had to agree to a range of new safety measures beyond simply playing matches behind closed doors, including: the quarantining of entire squads in the build up to the match, the use of a number of buses to allow the players to maintain social distancing on the way to and from the stadium, players wearing protective facemasks on their way out of the tunnel, temperature checks for the small number of staff, officials, emergency personnel, media and of course the players before entering the stadium, the balls having to be disinfected before kick-off and at half-time, and of course the ban on spitting, hugging and handshakes. So would it all be worth it?
On Saturday morning, and in actual fact for most of the preceding week, there was a definite bristle of excitement in the Football Nerd household, a sense of anticipation that a familiar structure was coming back. That for the first time in what has a felt like a very long time, we had a focus, we had football matches to watch where we didn’t know what was going to happen. First item on our essential shopping list for the festivities was beer and plenty of it. Although we managed to resist the temptation of replacing our rusted old bbq and setting up an impromptu fan park offering wurst to go along with our beer in our postage stamp-sized garden, to endeavour to create the true German football watching experience!
The even better news for your author was that amongst the first matches to be screened on BT Sport was the Revierderby between my German side of choice (Football Nerd on Tour: Two Football Obsessives’ Pilgrimage to see the Yellow Wall.) and local rivals Schalke 04. Although in picking the venue of the Westfalenstadion revered throughout football fandom for its fans, tifos, signing and generally fantastic supporter experience, if not deliberatly would certainly mark in stark contrast our new normal means of watching our football. The missus was happy that her team of (allegedly) decades of support and not simply because she liked the name (honest!), Borussia Mönchengladbach were on in the early evening game as they travelled to Eintracht Frankfurt.
In all honesty the opening quarter of an hour or so did feel a bit strange, the tempo was slow and gave an indication of the players’ rustiness after a longer break from playing than any of them will have had to endure other than for injuries. On a slightly irritating note it seems that Steve McManaman’s time in the hiatus hasn’t been put to the constructive use of making his commentary any less annoying, and of course we simply couldn’t survive a ninety minute match without a completely unnecessary use of VAR, very much first world football problems I of course realise!
However, once the passes started to stick a bit more and Dortmund got a grip of the game, the quality of the on-field action seemed to lift. The first goal from hot Norwegian striking prospect Erling Håland was well worked and a tidy finish and brought a bigger cheer from me than I had anticipated, a result of having a match to enjoy after so many weeks.
It was a comfortable victory for Dortmund in the end two goals from the impressive wingback Raphaël Guerreiro, and another from the middle brother of the Hazard clan, Thorgan, sealed the 4-0 win. The three points moved BvB to within one point of reigning champions and leaders at the shutdown, Bayern Munich, who were to play the following day.
In the early evening game, two goals in the opening seven minutes for Mönchengladbach established early control of the game for Marco Rose’s exciting young side and they eventually won out 3-1 putting themselves three points off the top and joining Dortmund in hoping that Bayern slipped up at Union Berlin.
Having an actual title race to follow brought bigger meaning to watching the Sunday games, the ‘warm up matches’ between Greuther Fürth, now very much another of Mrs Football Nerd’s adopted teams, and Hamburg in Bundesliga 2 and then FC Köln and Mainz both ended 2-2 and helped pass the time ahead of the big one. Alas Bayern were to prove too strong for the fairy tale East Berlin side, a penalty from Robert Lewandowski and a late goal from Benjamin Pavard were enough to seal the victory and restore Bayern’s lead of four points at the top of the table.
I have heard and read many people saying in the last day or so that they found it hard to adjust to watching matches without fans, comparing the spectacle to pre-season friendlies or a televised training match and I can certainly understand that point of view. However it is very unlikely that football will take place in front of a crowd in a ground for some considerable time yet and as long as you can find the buy-in, for me it was having a team to actively support who are involved in a challenge for the title, then at least in some way the normality of giving games a competitive edge has returned.
Before the match, journalist and expert in all things German football Raphael Honigstein suggested that the whole of football if not world sport would be watching the matches to see if a return is viable, if nothing else the Germans have proven that it just might be. Hopefully for lovers of the Premier League and English football our own governing bodies and Government will be able to learn from this experience and plot our own way back, even if the proposed start date of the 12th of June seems somewhat ambitious given the situation here in the UK.
For now, the Bundesliga has done enough to sate at least some of the Football Nerd household’s desperation for meaningful football to follow and enjoy, continuing with of course Dortmund’s trip to Wolfsburg on Saturday, in the unlikely event that we don’t watch Werder Bremen v Leverkusen this evening and the Berlin derby on Friday night!