Germany has been relatively competent in responding to covid-19, so it was perhaps fitting that the Bundesliga was the first major European league to return. There were strict rules: no fans allowed near the Signal Iduna Park, the cavernous home of Borussia Dortmund; players arriving at the stadium in protective gear, tested for the virus before the game; five substitutions allowed for each team, the coaches, medical and other technical staff of the teams, along with the substitutes, sitting six feet from each other, masks on and looking eerily detached from each other. And, of course, there was the visual shock of no spectators.
Signal Iduna Park is one of the storied venues of world football. It can hold 81,000 people, and on matchdays it is home to a heaving mass of fans, mostly Dortmund fans, some 24,000 of whom form the famous Yellow Wall, the largest standing terrace in world football. The din is ground shaking, unrelenting, intimidating. Especially in games against Schalke, the most famous rivalry in German football, the Rivierderby, “the mother of all derbies". But in these dystopic times, the stadium had just about 250 people, which included the playing and other staff of the two teams, journalists, TV crews, four ball boys, some ground staff and doctors, and members of the Dortmund board.
The game started unevenly, both sets of players looking a little stunned and unsure, as if they were playing a practice game. For the viewer, the scenes were even more surreal. The absence of crowd noise, means that one of your key football senses, the auditory experience, is being denied. Instead of the constant roar, all you hear is the shouts and screams from the coaches in the technical area, the yelps and shouts from the players, and the many tonalities of booted feet kicking a football. You realize that as a viewer in normal circumstances, you don’t just watch the game, but ‘experience’ it for an immersive 90 minutes. The highs and lows in the fortunes of the two teams over the course of the game are reflected in the cheers and sighs of the fans, the roars of triumphs or the hushed murmur of defeat...and a range of emotions in-between. The players react to it, feed off it, are sometimes overwhelmed by it.
In an empty, vast, echoey stadium filled with eerie silence, the Rivierderby became oddly two-dimensional. However, soon enough, once both sets of players had shrugged off their own sense of unreality, it became a proper contest. Dortmund however, second in the league and having a fantastic season, were clearly streets ahead of Schalke, who struggled throughout the game to string coherent passes together. The teenage sensation Erling Braut Håland opened the scoring in the 29th minute, sidefooting home after an incisive, devastating counterattack by Dortmund. The only celebration was a strange, shuffling, socially distanced dance that Håland performed with teammate Achraf Hakimi.
There was plenty of contact between players during the game, nobody was holding back from tackles, interceptions, shirt-tugging, all the usual football stuff. But the celebrations were mostly restricted to fist bumps from distance, or elbow bumps. At one point in the first half, Håland and Schalke defender Jean-Clair Todibo had an altercation, and the two squared up, nose to nose, until laughing teammates reminded them of social distancing and pulled them apart.
And so it went, this eerie tableau, with Dortmund clicking and playing some lovely flowing football, while Schalke defending in numbers like the less proficient away team that they were. There was some interest in noticing which of the players had kept up their personal grooming routines during the lockdown, and who’d let things slide. So while Todibo’s hairstyle was perfectly on point, Dortmund defender Thomas Delaney could definitely do with a haircut. At one point one of the commentators pointed out how awkward their silences were, which would normally by punctuated by crowd noises, and therefore would go unnoticed. Another commentator wondered aloud if Schalke might be affected by the lack of opposing fans booing them, which would have normally fired them up to compete more. As the teams went in at half time with Dortmund 2-0 up, I was reminded of a rousing derby two seasons ago, when Schalke came back from 4-0 down to draw the game.
Nothing of the sort happened here. Dortmund turned the screws soon after restart and were 4-0 up just past the hour mark, with Thorgan Hazard and Raphael Gurreiro scoring two brilliant goals, with the latter’s nonchalant flick with the outside of his left foot, the pick of the bunch. The Dortmund midfield, led by the brilliant Julian Brandt, were simply imperious, playing some delightful football. Any semblance of atmosphere was provided by the stadium announcer Norbert Dickel, a Dortmund legend who is also a commentator for Dortmund’s internet-radio broadcasts. He had some roaring, choice words for the referee whenever the latter penalised Dortmund players for fouls.
Towards the end, as both sets of players tired—they’ve been away from any real football for two months now—the weirdness of the situation really began to sink in. Football is nothing without it’s fans, and while the game itself is absorbing enough to somewhat plug that gap, the new abnormal of football without spectators seems quite sterile. The match petered out and ended with no time added on. Exactly two people clapped. The Dortmund players, on a lark, went up towards the empty south terrace, enacted a mock wave for the phantom Yellow Wall. Two groundsmen cheered back.