Football is back in Germany. After a postponement of more than two months, the Bundesliga resumed this weekend (and Monday) with a full programme.
Its return was eagerly awaited not only by German supporters but by fans all over the world, deprived of their fix of live action for months, with an estimated global TV audience, from more than 70 countries, running into the hundreds of millions.
Not only were they interested in the outcome of the matches but they wanted to get a foretaste of what to expect when their own leagues resume.
Although this was football, it was not the same game that people knew and loved before Covid-19 became the term that topped the Google Search results.
For a start there were no fans allowed in the ground, a big miss in a league which has more match day fans than anywhere else in Europe. Instead attendees were limited to players, coaches, match officials, media crews and a skeleton of ground staff. That meant that the Ruhr derby which would normally have been an 82,000 capacity sell-out, was watched live by barely 200 people. Everywhere, empty stadiums saw games played in a largely eerie silence, punctuated by the odd cry from players or coaches.
All those sat on the side-lines, apart from managers who were allowed to keep theirs off so their instructions could be heard, wore masks at all time, and sat two meters apart to maintain social distancing rules.
Beforehand, all concerned had been tested for coronavirus, and had been quarantined in a hotel for a week beforehand, travelling to the game in several buses to help preserve individual isolation. Pitches were disinfected before use, as were balls both before the game and at half-time.
There were no customary handshakes at the end of the match – instead players contented themselves with fist bumps, or, in the case of the Wolfsburg team, touched studs with the referee.
Even the post-match rituals were different. Pitch-side interviews were conducted by reporters with microphones on long sticks, whilst press conferences with journalists were held remotely.
Not everything went according to plan. Players had been explicitly told beforehand not to celebrate goals in the usual way but, in the excitement of the moment, some forgot themselves. Dedryck Boyata kissed teammate Marko Grujic on the cheek when the latter scored for Hertha Berlin against Hoffenheim, and some Borussia Mönchengladbach players embraced each other after scoring two early goals against Frankfurt.
Despite that, most games went ahead without a hitch, although some commentators felt that players lacked match fitness – understandably after months of inactivity and with limited opportunities to train since then.
One concern that police had before the games started was that fans would still want to travel and congregate outside grounds, even though they had no chance of being admitted, just to be close to the action again. There were also worries that some extremist groups, who are unhappy at the season resuming without spectators, would try and disrupt proceedings. In the event these fears proved groundless, and barely a handful of fans turned up at the respective stadiums, the overwhelming majority content to watch the games on television.
On the pitch, it was very much business as usual, with Bayern Munich maintaining their four point lead at the top with a 2 – 0 win at Union Berlin on Sunday, courtesy of a penalty from Robert Lewandowski, and a second from Benjamin Pavard. They are trailed by Borussia Dortmund, who thumped neighbours Schalke 4 – 0 on Saturday, with Erling Haaland amongst the goal scorers again.
Borussia Mönchoengladbach have leapfrogged RB Leipzig into third place. They beat Eintracht Frankfurt 3 -1 away, whilst Leipzig were held to a draw at home by Freiburg.