here was, said Thomas Müller, “a tingling sensation because it was starting again”. Not nervousness, he was quick to stress, but an opening day of the season feeling, as the Bundesliga got back out of the blocks. This time, it was with an atmosphere of the ultimate juxtaposition – in echoey stadiums, but with the whole world watching.
“Gedämpfte Freude” – muffled joy – was how the headline on Monday’s edition of Kicker put it, set across a photo of Borussia Dortmund’s players saluting a cavernous, empty Südtribune after their emphatic 4-0 Revierderby win over Schalke on Saturday afternoon. “It was spontaneous,” said midfielder Julian Brandt, and that was key to a weekend which was a string of unusual occasions.
It was Brandt’s teammate Erling Braut Haaland who had scored the first goal of the post-Covid-19 Bundesliga, a typically instinctive finish that was followed by an untypical, socially-distanced celebration by the corner flag in Signal Iduna Park’s south-west corner. Frankfurter Allgemeine’s Christian Kamp joked that Lucien Favre, BVB’s detail-driven coach, had even mapped out every move of his team’s formation for the moments immediately after scoring.
Yes, even the manner of post-goal festivities were examined forensically – when does an elbow bump go too far up the forearm, some asked – with Hertha’s delight at their 3-0 win at Hoffenheim becoming a little bit too authentic. Their captain, Vedad Ibisevic, already implicated in the now-banned Salomon Kalou’s infamous Facebook Live video, hugged assist provider Maximilian Mittelstädt and strike partner Matheus Cunha after scoring the middle goal (which is discouraged by the DFL but not a punishable offence), with Dedryck Boyata forced into a social media apology for kissing Marko Grujic. “The emotions are part of [the game],” defended Hertha’s debutant coach Bruno Labbadia. “I’ll certainly make sure I look after my team.”
By Sunday evening Müller, when substituted towards the end of Bayern’s 2-0 win at Union Berlin, got away with planting a gentle kick on the backside of his head coach Hansi Flick as an improvised salutation on his way to sit down (substitutes sit in the stand, not on the bench, with three seats between them, by the way). Müller also dryly remarked that there was a touch of “old men playing at 7pm” about a dialled-down occasion, particularly at a stadium “where the mood can tip the scales”, but even if Bayern’s victory required more attrition than Flick would have hoped, it felt as if there was at least some sort of conditional new normal as the sun began to set in the capital.
The global reaction to the Bundesliga’s return was generally positive, with A Bola’s “obrigado, Bundesliga” from Portugal typical of the continent-wide relief that the raising of the curtain had passed relatively setback-free, though Spain’s El Mundo Deportivo commented that it “would have been good if a minute’s silence had been observed for the victims of Coronavirus”. The aspect not just of being entertained – and the general standard of play was way better than might have been expected after 66 days of unscheduled stoppage – but of viewing possible best practice is clear.
Eintracht Frankfurt’s sporting director Fredi Bobic, who called the restart “a historic day for the Bundesliga”, also told Sky that the league could be a litmus test for all sports. “We also received a tremendous number of calls from American clubs for information,” said the former Bolton striker. “Not only from football clubs but also baseball, basketball and ice hockey. They all want to know how we’re doing it and how we organised it. “
For beyond the wet-wiping of balls, electronic sensors to maintain a 1.5m distance between non-playing workers and the taking of journalists’ temperatures, this was a television hit. Sky posted record viewing figures of more than 6 million on the restart, with 3.68 million watching the Saturday afternoon games on their subscriptions and another 2.45 million watching it for free on Sky Sport News HD. Whether this will continue is open to debate. DAZN will show Monday night’s game between Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen and is offering a free month’s subscription, and the DFL says it is “in talks” regarding forthcoming matches.
Yet just as the league’s CEO, Christian Seifert, talked of “earning” another round of fixtures with each successfully rolled-out round under these hygiene measures, the Bundesliga has a long way to go to win many hearts and minds. “Football should not make the mistake of looking for the truth on the pitch alone,” Kamp wrote in Frankfurter Allgemeine.
More protests against the Bundesliga’s restart:
An actual sofa has been placed at FC Köln’s stadium.
Text reads: “Stadium instead of sofa! Against ghost games!”
— Felix Tamsut (@ftamsut) May 16, 2020
The banner behind the goal at Augsburg which read “Der Fußball will leben – euer Business is krank!” (football will survive, your business is sick) spoke for many, with many fan groups’ distaste for the resumption clear. A sofa was placed in front of Köln’s Rhein-Energie Stadion before Sunday’s game against Mainz, graffitied with “Gegen Geisterspiele” (against ghost games) and “Scheiss DFB!”, with the message being that the front room was no substitute for the terrace. Seifert’s message has been that the country’s 36 professional clubs need the resumption to survive, but there are a proportion of fans out there who don’t believe him – or think that what football has become is not even worth saving.
Some are seizing the opportunity to promote a favoured cause. In the aftermath of Schalke’s humbling in the derby, their chairman, Clemens Tönnies – who is lucky to still be in his role after a racism scandal last year – spoke to Sky again about the possibility of restructuring the club’s governance model, an idea which might find more eager ears in a time of financial uncertainty. The 50+1 rule is also likely be examined by those who wish to bring the Bundesliga more in line with the rest of Europe.
The coming week will present new challenges, as the players return to their homes and families before the next round of fixtures. Beyond the hygiene protocol, the long-term health of the Bundesliga will also be under close scrutiny as it continues to spread its wings like never before.
There was more good news for Bayern after they restored their lead at the top to four points with their win in Berlin. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Sky he was “cautiously optimistic” that contract talks with Manuel Neuer would reach a positive conclusion, a feeling reciprocated by the goalkeeper weeks after the two sides had been poles apart.
There were some minor musical chairs in the top four, with Borussia Mönchengladbach leapfrogging Leipzig into third with a 3-1 at Frankfurt – Julian Nagelsmann’s team were held by Freiburg. Gladbach scored twice in the first seven minutes and their strike pair of Alassane Pléa and Marcus Thuram must have looked irresistible to at-home Premier League scouts.
“Hitting the woodwork four times – I haven’t seen that in 30 years,” remarked an incredulous Uwe Rösler, with his Fortuna Düsseldorf letting Paderborn escape home with a rare clean sheet. It was even more costly after Mainz came back from two down to draw at Köln on Sunday.
Heiko Herrlich watched his team’s late defeat to Wolfsburg from a private box in the stands, after breaking quarantine earlier in the week to get face cream and toothpaste. More than two months after his appointment, the former Dortmund striker is still waiting for his Augsburg touchline debut.