No fans. No stadium noise. No post-match handshakes. Socially distant goal celebrations. Football has emerged from its coronavirus hibernation – and it’s going to take some time to get used to it.
It may be a welcome return to normalcy after a barren two-month run which saw some sports fans resort to watching professional athletes play video games against one another online, but the beautiful game has a distinctly different pallor today.
Saturday marked the resumption of the German Bundesliga two months after its last set of fixtures, but this weekend’s games were drastically different to the ones that came before, as teams were obliged to obey a stringent set of protocols which will soon become commonplace in sports grounds across Europe.
Limits on public gatherings in Germany had given fans a heads-up that supporters won’t be permitted into stadiums well in advance, so this change had been at least partially mentally prepared for – but for some supporters, it was the myriad other little changes which highlighted what professional sports in the midst of a global pandemic looks like.
And it all started before a ball was kicked. Presenting himself on television for a pre-match interview, RB Leipzig boss Julian Nagelsmann appeared before cameras wearing facial protective gear. The microphone through which he was interviewed was coated in plastic wrap. Any sense of the tactility football usually has was gone, instead two-meter buffer zones were employed on the sidelines. You can look but you can’t touch.
Julian Nagelsmann conducts a surreal interview before RB Leipzig vs. SC Freiburg. pic.twitter.com/0rBWekkjqF
Dortmund substitutes sitting apart on the bench and with face coverings on. pic.twitter.com/eSVkLWdHPC
Glad football is back, we all needed it but it will take ages to get used to this new world of football.
Football also has a distinctly different soundtrack. The constant monosyllabic hum of the crowd is gone, its absence instead amplifying every grunt and shout on the field. The ‘thwack’ of a ball hitting the woodwork has never been quite as emphatic, nor the satisfying sound of a ball rippling into the back of a net.
Some players may need to be reminded of this fact. At least one Schalke player was apparently caught on a hot mic telling Dortmund’s Erling Haaland to, well, do something we won’t repeat with his own grandmother….
No fans = we hear everything. Jean-Clair Todibo to Erling Braut Haaland moments before the Norwegian scored: “Go **** your grandmother.” pic.twitter.com/3Xy1il6HH5
It does’t stop there. Spitting, which was previously a slightly off-putting but accepted part of the game, has brand new connotations in the time of Covid-19. Handshakes are a big no-no. Hugging after a goal? Forget about it. Balls were also being disinfected at half time. Yes, you read that right.
All match-balls will be disinfected at half-time in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga. pic.twitter.com/xpBg7qDJGV
Predictably, and just minutes after he was advised to engage in carnal relations with his grandmother, it was Haaland who scored the first goal of the resumed season. While this represented business as usual for the prolific striker, what came after was new. Unsure of what to do, and not wanting to embrace his colleagues, the Norwegian performed a strange jig by the corner flag in celebration, sort of like what happens when you mash your controller after a goal in FIFA. So that’s what this button does…
This celebration from Haaland tho pic.twitter.com/94wygGkIFl
The famous ‘Yellow Wall’ inside Dortmund’s home stadium would have registered a significant decibel level at any other time. Today, it was silent.
Football is back and that is something for fans to be thankful for. But you can imagine that this is just the first phase of many before we can declare that the sport is truly back.