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Bundesliga returns amid eerie silence

17 May 2020 By ASHOK PUROHIT

German League restarted on Saturday behind closed doors after a two-month hiatus as football came face to face with a new reality. From temperature checks to disinfected balls, substitutes wearing masks to socially distanced seating on the bench, elbow bumps and fist bumps to celebrate goals, it was a ‘surreal experience’ 

Munich, Germany – Football-starved fans across the world welcomed the restart of the German League (Bundesliga) after a two-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic on Saturday.

The German Bundesliga became the first major European football league to return since the coronavirus lockdown, with teams playing in empty, echoing stadiums.

Norwegian sensation Erling Braut Haaland stole the limelight on Saturday as the 19 year old striker claimed the first goal in Germany’s top flight for over two months to set Borussia Dortmund on the way to a 4-0 win over local rivals Schalke.

A total of six matches took place on the opening day of the return of action in German League.

Second-placed Dortmund moved to within a point of leaders Bayern Munich, who are chasing an eighth straight title and play Union Berlin away on Sunday.

Haaland celebrated by dancing alone – making no contact with teammates, who clapped him on – to comply with the strict hygiene guidelines which allowed the league to return.

“There is something surreal about it. In the two hours before the match, you receive text messages from all over the world, people who tell you that they are going to watch the match on TV, and then you drive through your city and there is absolutely nothing happening. You have to get used to it,” Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke told media after his team’s win. 

All matches are being played behind closed doors, with no more than 300 people permitted inside stadiums in what German fans call as ‘ghost games’.

Normally, Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park would be packed with more than 80,000 fans for the Ruhr derby, one of the biggest fixtures in German football.

In contrast to elsewhere, Hertha Berlin players celebrated their goals by hugging each other, flouting the league’s hygiene guidelines, but coach Bruno Labbadia defended his team. 

“The fact is that this is part of football, he said. “We’ve been tested so many times that we can allow it.

“If you can’t celebrate anymore, the whole thing breaks down. I’m just glad that the team had reason to cheer today.”

A German Football League (DFL) spokesman confirmed there will be no punishment, as it had only offered ‘guidelines’ on how goals should be celebrated.

Masked substitutes

In order to obtain the political green light to resume this weekend, the DFL has tested players and coaches regularly for the virus and teams have been in quarantine for the past week.

Teams arrived at stadiums in several buses in order to meet social distancing requirements inside vehicles.

Schalke became the first team to make use of the rule change that allows five substitutions in a game, with David Wagner using the maximum number at Dortmund. The increase in subs, approved by the game’s lawmakers earlier this month, was adopted by the Bundesliga to limit the risk of injury following two months without matches.

Head coaches were allowed to go without a mask so they could shout instructions to their players.

Substitutes took off their masks to warm up, and when players were replaced they were handed a mask before reaching the bench.

While fans across the world celebrated being able to watch top-level live football after a two-month drought, some supporters questioned the wisdom in restarting the league.

Augsburg followers hung a banner in front of an empty stand that read ‘Football gives life – your business is sick’ in protest at football being played while the pandemic still takes lives across Europe.

Clean balls, please

Footballs were disinfected by ball boys before the game and again at half-time.

There were 30 match balls, each of them disinfected by ball boys and left on special spots rather than handing them to players

RB Leipzig came up with a novel solution to helping players obey DFL rules which stipulate there must be at least 1.5m distance between each person on the substitutes bench.

With not enough room in the subs area for the matchday squad, some players had to sit in the stands, which are three metres above the pitch and the dugout on the sidelines. So Leipzig borrowed a set of aircraft stairs which are normally used to board and disembark passengers from planes, from nearby Halle/Leipzig airport.

Wolfsburg players kicked boots with the referee and his assistants, rather than the usual handshakes, following their 2-1 victory at Augsburg.

Players and managers were interviewed by television reporters with microphones on sticks, keeping to a safe distance, while post-match news conferences were done by video conferencing.

Despite the restart many fans and experts felt that it was not the same watching games without fans.

A Dortmund fan said, “It was so strange, it is going to take some getting used to. Football without the fans is tough to watch.”

The Bundesliga’s hiatus lasted nine weeks, with the three other elite football leagues in harder-hit countries in Europe – the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A – not yet providing a set date for their comebacks. Those leagues surely kept an eye on how Saturday went. 

On Monday, English Premier League clubs are expected to vote on whether to return to non-contact training or not. 

The DFL has made no secret of the fact that several clubs are in a dire financial situation as a result of the lockdown.

If they are able to complete the nine remaining rounds of matches by June 30, clubs could receive around US$324mn from television contracts.

Other Bundesliga results: Augsburg 1 Wolfsburg 2, Fortuna Dusseldorf 0 Paderborn 0, RB Leipzig 1 Freiburg 1, Hoffenheim 0 Hertha Berlin 3, Eintracht Frankfurt 1 Borussia Monchengladbach 3.

(With inputs from agencies)

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