There was no hiding how strange football’s return was.
Stadiums were empty, substitutes physically-distanced and in masks, players’ shouts were audible and the sound of the referee’s whistle was almost deafening. A smattering of applause from the bench accompanied goals and goal music echoed around stadiums like a soundcheck before a concert.
Outside, streets were quiet. The opening whistle to the Ruhr derby, Germany’s loudest fixture, was heard across the street. Felix Uduokhai’s goal for Augsburg being ruled out by VAR was met by the quiet applause of one or two from the Wolfsburg bench. It was football, just not as we knew it.
Should Germany continue to manage the coronavirus pandemic and the DFL’s hygiene protocols continue to be effectively put into place, this is what football will look like for a while, though. This strange, echoey, solo-celebrating, mask-wearing, stadium-empty football will never become normal, but certainly more familiar.
And so will Bundesliga football, certainly for as long as it headlines Saturday afternoons on its own.
Bundesliga in the spotlight
Erling Haaland has long been famous for scoring, and in doing so again against Schalke the young Norwegian did perhaps little more than prove that if there is one thing he can’t do then it is celebrate on his own (although he deserves credit for following the rules).
But perhaps more have seen the talent of Julian Brandt, the wonder of Christian Streich and Freiburg, and the pluckiness of Paderborn. More might have seen a league keen on developing players, proud of its stars, and one not in need of being anything other than what it is.
More people being exposed to the skill of those players and the league in general is a good thing.
Absence of feeling
But it didn’t feel right.
After months away, seeing Dortmund’s tour de force attack, last-minute winners being ruled out for controversial VAR decisions and powerful headed goals were all comforting reminder of football’s familiarities, but it all felt somewhat inconsequential.
A sterile approach might be the order of the day at the moment, but applying it to sport isolates the emotions and feelings tied to the highs and lows of competition. Fans in stadiums don’t just create atmosphere, they create consequence.
When Yussuf Poulsen equalized for RB Leipzig, the sound of James Brown echoed around the stadium. It was less a question of whether I felt good but rather whether I felt anything at all.
Football will always find a way, and this new way is historic. In the months ahead it will also become familiar, but it will never feel right.