Without the Covid-19 pandemic, Saturday 16 May would have seen the final matches of the German football league’s 57th season: a day of passion and noise, tears of joy from the champions and despair from fans of relegated teams. Instead, the restart of the Bundesliga after a nine-week break was a strangely clinical affair, which is more likely to be remembered for unfamiliar hygiene routines, an eerie atmosphere inside the stadiums and awkward elbow bumps.
For the restart to go ahead, the 36 clubs in the first and second division had to abide by a strict code of regulations drawn up by the German football association. No more than a total of 300 people were allowed in and directly around the stadiums where the games took place. Clubs were responsible for stopping their fans from gathering outside the arenas’ gates, though fears of fans ignoring social distancing to cheer on their teams proved unfounded: at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, famed for its intense atmosphere, the only people passing by the empty stands were joggers.
Around the pitch, there were no mascots and no children holding hands with players in the tunnels. Ballboys, reduced to four at each match, wore gloves and had to be tested for the coronavirus beforehand. TV reporters wore masks and plastic sheets over their microphones.
The German FA’s protocols advised clubs to disinfect match balls “before and during the match”, though only Eintracht Frankfurt confirmed they would wipe clean the balls used in their evening match against Borussia Mönchengladbach at half-time.
The Augsburg coach, Heiko Herrlich, was absent from his side’s home defeat against Wolfsburg having broken a mandatory seven-day quarantine to buy toiletries.
Players were advised to avoid communal showers or even wait to wash off the sweat and dirt in their hotels. Hygiene masks had to be worn in the dressing room, the players’ tunnel and on the subs bench.
Hugs and high-fives during goal celebrations had been discouraged. Most players and coaches opted for a bump of the elbow or lower arm instead. When Dortmund’s prodigious Norwegian striker Erling Braut Haaland scored the day’s first goal in the 29th minute, his team made sure to abide by social distancing to celebrate the opener.
Not everyone had got the message: the former Manchester City defender Dedryck Boyata broke guidelines by appearing to give his teammate Marko Grujic a firm kiss on the cheek during their 3-0 victory against Hoffenheim.
In the buildup to the matches, there had been high hopes that the Bundesliga being the first high-profile football league in Europe to restart after the lockdown would create an image boost for a league often overshadowed by the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A.
Instead, footage of deserted stands and players’ shouts eerily echoing inside the empty stadiums seemed to mainly draw attention to the absence of the strongly nourished grassroots fan culture that used to set the German league apart from others in Europe.