It will be a weekend like none before it in the Bundesliga as German football returns from its self-imposed coronavirus hiatus for its first fixtures in two months, but what will be different about football in the era of Covid-19?
With barely a football kicked in anger on planet earth in the last two months, Germany has raised its hand to be the first major league out of the Covid-19 trenches when its top division returns on Saturday, but without fans, and even without players hugging and spitting, will the beautiful game be quite as rosy-cheeked as we remember?
The age of social distancing was never going to translate to the sporting world fluently, but it becomes almost impossible to police during a football match. Since they were boys, players have been brought up in the same environment: hug your teammates when they score, get close to your opposing player, and spit frequently.
While the second of those three is impossible to remove from the game, the other two come in direct contrast to the advice put forth by health professionals.
So, what exactly will football look like nowadays?
With players cooped up in their homes for the majority of the past two months, you can guarantee that more than a few have concocted some elaborate goal celebrations to roll out in the time of corona.
You can expect to see mimicked versions of any of the following: miming wearing a medical mask, staying two meters away from teammates, or players referencing a non-existent crowd. There really is a lot to work with here for some of the more creatively-minded footballers.
Well, if you were to ask Werder Bremen supporters they would tell you that their defence has been practicing social distancing from opposition attackers all season but that’s beside the point.
Some of the guidelines aimed at policing the health and safety of the players seem somewhat contradictory. The two sets of players are forbidden from contact in the tunnel before the game. When they’re on that pitch though? All bets are off.
The bench will have a distinctly different hue too, as substitutes will be required to wear masks and sit further apart from each other. Coaches must also wear masks but will be permitted to temporarily remove to them to shout instructions to players – potentially leading to bizarre showdowns between coaching staff and match officials. Can a coach be sent to the stands for failing to wear a mask sufficiently? I guess we’ll find out.
The absence of thousands of screaming supporters inside a stadium can make the experience of watching it on television a bit neutered. The atmosphere is so dependent on the constant hum of crowd chatter that it is something that has become programmed into our brains. Football has a soundtrack.
Not this weekend, though. To compensate for this, some broadcasters are offering viewers the option to pipe in fake crowd noise to mimmic the chattery hum of a football match.
The other side of this coin is the dozens of hot mics which will surround the pitch – and players must be wary that everything they say on the pitch could be picked up by an audience at home. Mind your Ps and Qs, gentlemen.
Officiating a football match is one of the most thankless tasks in professional sports. No matter what a referee’s decision is, there will be thousands of people who tribally object to it. They will scream at him, informing him of his need to visit an optician, or worse.
While that particular element of fan feedback will be gone, the gaze affixed to the referee will be even stronger. Several questions remain: can the referee discipline players for failing to observe health guidelines? Will players booked for spitting? How many of these rules are open to a referee’s interpretation?
The referee is meant to be the authority on the field when it comes to footballing matters. It will be interesting to see if his job has changed, at least for now.
Let’s face it, this is a shot in the dark. Regular life, including sports, has to return eventually but no one will really know how this goes until someone actually does it.
The Bundesliga has implemented as much health and safety instructions as is reasonable but there is still a considerable roll of the dice involved when dealing with something as potentially deadly as Covid-19.
Sports fans the world over will be hoping that the Bundesliga return happens as seamlessly as possible and opens the door to further sports emerging from hibernation. The opposite is too depressing to even contemplate.
Sports needs a canary in the mineshaft. The Bundesliga is it.