Much of the talk surrounding Bundesliga’s return to action revolved around what the “new normal” would look like in football as Borussia Dortmund faced Schalke FC in the Ruhr derby at Signal Iduna Park.
For the ones in front of their television screens and phones, there was a bit of relief watching some sporting action after months, even if German football might have featured way down in their priority list before all activity was suspended in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Players made their way onto the field in batches. Previously, we’d see a polite conversation or two in the tunnel as both teams stood beside each other. One could see the coaching staff in masks (more on that later) and an even more interesting substitutes bench: The players were seated a few feet away with physical distancing measures taken.
There were no handshakes or high-fives, of course. Football fans surely were not the only ones watching as the Germans, in the months to come, may well show the blueprint for many other contact sports, who are wondering how they can kick into gear again. What better way to show how bitter rivals take to the guidelines in place. There are skeptics too. A poll before kick-off read that a majority of the Germans didn’t fancy a game of football under current circumstances.
Of course, the empty stands were an eye soar, especially when it is Westfalenstadion. Over the years, the Dortmund fans wrote stories of their own from the stands. A giant wall (around 80,000 of them) of raucous but impeccably behaved fans in yellow and black, unfurling massive banners and bouncing in unison with chants would surely rank among the best sights in sport, irrespective of where your loyalties are.
One could see why organisers are considering having sound systems blare out pre-recorded chants of the crowd when games resume across the world. The effect of playing in front of empty seats was, perhaps, the hardest bullet to bite for a viewer and the early exchanges between the two teams showed why.
What is a competitive game in European football without the vocal but occasionally scary Ultras? There was also a small matter of intimidating visiting sides with home fans showing their strength in numbers. The only sounds one could hear were players and support staff clapping from the bench. There was also the sight of teammates barking instructions to each other, a part of the game almost forgotten – understandably so, with those noises being drowned out by the cheering onlookers.
The goal celebrations bordered on the hilarity but it must have felt odd to the Dortmund players. Rising Norwegian star Erling Braut Haaland bundled the ball into the net as the ‘home’ side, after an understandably jittery beginning, found rhythm. Here was a player back to goalscoring ways but the euphoria needed to be tempered down straight away; as though someone on the pitch instantly told the players: “All right, that was a good goal, now stay away from each other.”
Haaland broke into a little jig near the corner flag and then he and his teammates casually walked back to their halves as if it was a competitive training drill. Now the focus was on the game. The 19-year-old, minutes before opening the scoring, was involved in a heated duel with Schalke defender Jean-Clair Todibo in the six-yard area off a corner. There was also some mild pushing and shoving on that occasion.
But Dortmund had a title race to get back to. By the time Portuguese Raphael Guerreiro gave Dortmund a 2-0 lead, the game was nearly dead and buried. Schalke were struggling to create attacks of note. Even without skipper Marco Reus and the potent Jadon Sancho, Dortmund strutted around the turf with ease as Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt and Haaland left their arch-rivals in sixes and sevens at the back.
Soon after the restart, Hazard gave his side a three-goal cushion and near the hour mark, Guerreiro added further gloss to the scoreline for Dortmund by stealthily beating the offside trap and applying a finish of supreme quality.
This fixture has produced many classics. One such game was in November 2017 where Dortmund waltzed to a 4-0 lead at half-time, only for Schalke to match the feet in the second half and earn a point. Sadly, for a neutral, there was no such late drama on Saturday. The men in blue and white were rusty, lacked cohesiveness going forward and their defence was too porous against attackers credited amongst the best next-gen talents in the world.
Midfielder Thomas Delaney, once taken off, was immediately offered a mask by one of the officials and there were air-fives being waved from the Dane from a distance to teammates on the bench. Dortmund were happy to see out the contest. More than any of their well-drilled moves on the pitch, the most poignant moment came once the game was done.
“Of course, we’d have preferred normal conditions, but in the end, football is football and we tried to have fun,” said Brandt, who created two assists for Dortmund. “It was tough on the legs at the end, because of the long break.”
The players walked up to the empty stands and clapped just like a normal day in the office, showing what their acclaimed fanbase means to the Die Schwarzgelben. After what was an awkward beginning, they too warmed up to a new way of life for the foreseeable future.