Of course, it would be Erling Haaland to open the scoring in Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 win against Schalke over the weekend. It was the 19-year-old’s 10th Bundesliga goal (on 13 shots on target) since coming to Dortmund over the winter, and a brief reminder of the footballing narratives that consumed us pre-pandemic. Haaland would then join his teammates after the match in applauding the empty seats of Dortmund’s Yellow Wall before capping off his day with an instantly meme-able interview. Considering the circumstances, and that it even took place at all, Dortmund’s win was described as “genuinely one of the most important football matches ever played.”
The Bundesliga passed its first step of probation despite small moments of relapse, with eight more match days remaining. We didn’t believe it until we actually saw matches kickoff, with the league’s return still seemingly hanging in the balance hours before play. One German politician said that the restart could be given a “red card” should players fail to comply with social distancing rules. Augsburg manager Heiko Herrlich was suspended for the re-opening after he broke quarantine rules in leaving his hotel room to buy toothpaste.
Considering the first half of 2020, no one would have been surprised had the Bundesliga scrapped the entire season altogether. There were other setbacks, such as Gio Reyna suffering an injury during warm-ups. Those potential muscle injuries from a lack of match fitness were such a concern that the Bundesliga agreed to giving each side five substitutions. Dortmund even went as far as hiring a sports psychologist to mentally prepare its players to perform in empty stadiums.
The Revierderby, one of the most passionate derbies in world football, would be a litmus test of the viability of ghost games: how would teams compete? Would the silence favor a technical side that plays in possession, or a defensive side relying on energy and counters? Would audiences get used to a lack of atmosphere? Instead, Schalke manager David Wagner was plain in his assessment, saying that his side were outplayed and deserved to lose.
We’ve attempted to contextualize the ghost games with metaphors. Maybe silent matches are similar to watching bootleg DVDs of movies. Or perhaps, they must be analyzed under a different paradigm altogether, with the lack of atmosphere changing how the game was played. Markus Aretz, the communications director for Gladbach, observed that players were more tired following the match because they spent less time arguing with refs, and that they found the net playing time was “indeed up significantly” as compared to usual matches with atmosphere. Deniz Aytekin, the referee for Dortmund’s win, admitted that the derby would have been “more hectic” with supporters. Gladbach’s findings were indirectly inspirational, adding analytical proof that fans do impact matches by encouraging theatrics and slowing down the game.
Fouls were met simply by players returning to their positions. There was a behavioral nakedness, that players couldn’t hide or blame their usual antics on the crowd’s reactions. In lieu of players attempting to regain control of a match through gamesmanship, there was - fairness and more playing time? It may be absurd to ask considering we are discussing a sport, but don’t we actually miss some level of “shithousery”? Those theatrics are their own art form and subtextual dialogue, especially if you see the game in terms of tempo and rhythm.
“Some players said it was less hectic on the pitch, more matter of fact and fairer. No one was playing to the gallery, thinking they had to make certain gestures or tackles to please the crowd,” added Aretz.
Yet if there is a different match flow in the silence, then certain skillsets would be elevated without supporters. Enter the players made for the ghost game era: Thomas Muller is an early candidate, described as someone “you want to watch when you’re not really sure what you’re watching” (Muller’s nickname does translate into “interpreter of space”, though with his incessant drive, I had him as the most likely to get red carded in an empty stadium). Considering the momentum he had before the stoppage, I’d also consider Bayer Leverkusen’s 20-year-old phenom Kai Havertz as another player of the moment. We can focus solely on his playmaking and dribbling without sound. His positional versatility across attacking midfield, right wing, and now striker gives him that Muller-esque quality to drift and appear wherever space appears. Notice how he begins this goal-scoring sequence in an offsides position, disappearing into the centerback’s blind spot, before coming to life to attack the cross.
It may be one step too far to suggest scouting players built for matches without the choppiness and petulance derived from audiences. In addition to a player, the Bundesliga may have also been the perfect league to restart without supporters. Its frenetic, pressing energy translating through our televisions displays the players’ commitment despite a lack of noise. As we watch players run and hunt for turnovers, we can trick ourselves into thinking that this is the real thing.
Although there was the feeling of a training ground scrimmage towards the end of Leverkusen’s 4-1 win over Werder Bremen. Consider Bremen’s half-hearted attempt to chase and tackle Kerem Demirbay during Leverkusen’s fourth and final goal, combined with Demirbay’s playground finish. One can only imagine how Bremen supporters would have reacted to that sort of effort had they been in attendance. Five points safe from relegation, Bremen are likely to go down this season. But unlike other leagues, at least they get to settle it out on the field.
We all needed football. The Revierderby recorded a 725% increase in FS1 viewership as compared to the last Bundesliga match before play was suspended.
There were the familiar rhythms of weekend matches: the early morning wakeup times on the west coast followed by the warmth of a commentator welcoming you to the game. There was also the cognitive disconnect in asking players to observe social distancing rules during their goal celebrations while they tackled and jockeyed opponents for positioning (the Bundesliga said it would not fine Hertha Berlin defender Dedryck Boyata for kissing teammate Marko Grujic on the cheek following a goal). One observer noted that it appeared as if broadcasts cut away from goal celebrations, careful not to show teammates in close contact while larger society remains in social isolation.
Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke echoed Karl-Heinze Rumminigge’s opinion that the league’s early return showed off the discipline of the German government. Our rewards come with another weekend of matches, however imperfect. We’re coming to an understanding, and putting into words, what exactly supporters add to the game in real time. The individual actions of play - the passing, the tackling, the shooting - are the script, but supporters give it life and character, making it three-dimensional. Though there were moments last weekend where you could forget, lost in the familiarity of teams battling for positioning on top of the table, and those resigned to the inevitability of relegation.