What did we learn from Bundesliga return?

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The Bundesliga restart amid the coronavirus pandemic provided much-needed hope and excitement. That is the main thing we learned on Saturday, even if games in large empty stadiums are eerie affairs, we now have hope.

In Germany games with no fans are called “ghost games” and that seems very accurate right now after Saturday’s six games. But we have hope and we can forget a lot of the abnormalities because top level sport has returned to Europe.

Hope is good. Hope is normal. Right now, hope is something we should all have as we hope for normality again soon. Our weekends can now be planned around watching live sports and life doesn’t get any more normal than that, right?

For the majority of the last two months live sport evaded us. Whistles did not blow. Goals were not scored. Players did not run. But that all happened again and we lost ourselves in watching great plays and moments and it helped us forgot about everything else going on. That is what sports does best. It was just like the old times. Fans in the stands or not, the game itself is still all-consuming once it kicks off.

Saturday’s action proved it can now be done. The Premier League, La Liga and Serie A now know they can have the Bundesliga on speed dial and whenever they’re at a crossroads as they try to restart during coronavirus they can call and say ‘oh, hey, Bundesliga, how did you get this done again?’

Heck, even the NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL must have been watching and taking notes on how it all worked as the Bundesliga was the first of Europe’s ‘top five’ to return.

A roadmap has been laid out for everyone else to follow but there will be tougher times ahead for German soccer. It is inevitable that small outbreaks of COVID-19 will crop up and certain games may be suspended. That is where some trepidation lies after this restart. However, there is now hope.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The main reason Germany’s top-flight has returned a month before the rest of Europe is because they (along with South Korea) have managed to control the virus and have shown all nations the way forward through testing and tracing. There is still a long way to go to get to this point in the USA, UK and elsewhere.

Germany and the Bundesliga have shown all nations a way forward for live sports returning and for that we are extremely grateful. Empty stadiums are something we will all have to get used to and this was the first step forward.

Here’s what we learned from a surreal day as the Bundesliga restart took place in empty stadiums amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Crowd noise a problem?

The lack of a crowd with flags and songs and jeers and gasps was without doubt the strangest thing about the restart. Music was played so loud over the PA system before the game and after goals that you struggled to hear the commentators on TV. In the huge empty stadiums, players shouting and the sound of block tackles echoed around.

‘This is weird’ was the first reaction when you watched some of Europe’s top teams in full flow in empty stadiums but as the game wore on, you sort of forgot about it. A bit. It was like soccer stripped back, a training game or a very poorly attended preseason friendly. You could hear the players and coaches clearly and a smattering of applause after each goal or save. The acoustics in the 81,000 capacity Westfalenstadion was perhaps the worst because it is so grand. It is designed to keep the noise in and help create an intense atmosphere. When there are no fans there to create that, it just doesn’t work.

One idea could be playing low-level crowd noise, maybe just for the TV broadcasts, to help the viewer experience but we will get used to watching games with no fans. It will be weird for quite a while, though. Eerie silence after goals is not something that will ever seem normal.

Social-distance celebrations; new rules

The Bundesliga asked players to not hug each other and celebrate goals in groups but some teams sort of forget about it. Hertha Berlin in particular. The Bundesliga have said they will not punish players for failing to social distance properly after a goal but plenty of players did follow the rules.

When Erling Haaland opened the scoring for Dortmund he put on a socially distanced dance to celebrate the goal with his teammates who all stood a good distance away. Freiburg’s players bumped elbows to celebrate a goal. Marcus Thuram took part in air high fives and wanted no part of the celebrations.

Aside from celebrations, it was strange to see players just walking out onto the pitch with no fanfare. Dortmund center back Mats Hummels was just hanging out on his own before the game as Schalke players on the bench arrived with face masks on. There was no official walkout or handshakes as teams came out at different times and then waited for a while before the referees arrived separately.

Ball kids wore masks, balls were sprayed and cleaned and plenty were kept on the side of the pitch as coaches had face masks on and players sat apart on the bench and in nearby seats, as five subs can now be used under new FIFA rules. It was strange but it is the new normal. The fact subs sat apart confused some but studies have shown that players on the pitch only come into close contact with opponents for very limited periods of time, compared to players sat on the bench next to each other for 15-20 minutes at a time. New rules, social-distancing style, were clear for all to see.

Intensity lacking

Part of the new normal was easy to spot on the pitch. There was less tackling, overall, and the high-pressing style of many teams was not quite there. After a two month break from games, what did we expect?

We could probably expect smaller injuries to pop up and USMNT teenager Gio Reyna may have been a victim of that as he was injured in the warm up before what would have been his full Bundesliga debut. Fitness levels of certain teams seemed to be lacking and some teams have trained together individually or in groups longer than others depending where in Germany they are located and due to the local rules. The teams which needed the win more generally delivered.

The joy and relief of sport returning

Overall there was a look of joy and relief on the face of players and coaches, especially those who won. For now, they seem to have navigated the first hurdle safely. Of course, we will only know for sure when the players are tested after these games if it was a success. But the start went smoothly as players were interviewed from a distance by media outlets and the strict protocols in place seemed to be followed by every single person in the stadium.

Relief is the main feeling emanating from those who watched the Bundesliga action this weekend.

It wasn’t perfect and it was a little weird, especially to start with, but it will become normal. The Bundesliga proved that normality is maybe a little closer than we all thought, as the restart during the coronavirus pandemic also taught us plenty about how sports will look everywhere else for the foreseeable future.