Football’s back, baby! It’s back! Well, not in the UK, not yet. But over in Germany, the Bundesliga today becomes the first major division to get back up and running in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. And what a place to pick things up again: Borussia Dortmund versus Schalke! The Revierderby! The rumble in the Ruhr! The noise in North Rhine-Westphalia! The … hey, let us shake off some MBM rust, will you, it’s been a while. You get the gist.
So about that rumble and noise … BVB’s Westfalenstadion is arguably the most atmospheric ground in Europe, the Yellow Wall, all that. But not today. This game will be played behind closed doors, with only 213 people allowed in. That number takes in players, managers and staff, officials and ballboys, medical folk, camera operators and other assorted media types. There’ll be no handshakes, no team photos, no mascots. No cheering, no chanting. The rest of the 2019-20 Bundesliga season will be played out like this. Nine eerie games to go.
The tragic realities of Covid-19 aside, this is a shame for a more trivial reason. The Revierderby has always generated one hell of an atmosphere. Take 1969, for example, when Schalke took the lead at Dortmund. Fans staged a celebratory pitch invasion, and were chased back into the stands by police dogs. Amid the brouhaha, an Alsatian sunk his teeth into the most padded portion of Schalke defender Friedel Rausch’s shorts. It later transpired that this particular hound had nothing to do with the police, but was brought in by a sassy Dortmund fan posing as a peeler to gain free entry! When Schalke hosted the reverse fixture later that season, their president Gunter Siebert responded to events by patrolling the pitch with a lion. Forget that miserable old saw about Germans having no sense of humour: this was, quite literally, satire with teeth.
Fifty-one years on … and the Dortmund of 2020 are chasing their first Bundesliga title since the Jurgen Klopp era; since 2012 to be precise. They’re currently four points behind reigning champions Bayern Munich. Schalke are well off the pace in sixth spot, but if they can hinder their rivals’ title challenge this afternoon, it’ll make up for an awful lot. Schalke started the season well under new boss David Wagner, formerly of Huddersfield Town and Dortmund reserves, but the enforced break came at a good time for them: they’ve only won once in eight league games since the winter break, a 2-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach in January, and were recently battered 5-0 at home by RB Leipzig. Lucien Favre’s black and yellows, by contrast, are on a four-match winning run, though that comes with the obvious caveats and asterisks. The hosts will be the favourites today.
And yet Schalke will take heart from their last two visits to the Westfalenstadion. In 2017, they came back from four goals down after 25 minutes to grab an absurd 4-4 draw, while they won 4-2 last season as Dortmund’s title bid spluttered out horribly. On both occasions, Dortmund had men sent off. They haven’t won this fixture since 2015. So despite the strange, sterile, mid-pandemic atmosphere, today’s Revierderby still has the potential to thrill. It’s Der BVB! It’s Die Knappen! It’s one of the biggest rivalries in world football! It is, once again, on!
Kick-off: Too soon, some will undoubtedly say. But they’ll get the ball rolling at 3.30pm in Dortmund, 2.30pm UK time.