The German first division is back and rolling but is it really worth it?

The feeling of football returning in Germany did not settle in until Erling Haaland tapped in from a surging Thorgan Hazard cross from the right-wing and gave Dortmund the early lead in the all-important Rivierderby. Usually, there would have been over 80,000 people at the Signal Iduna Park celebrating the 20-year old’s goal in a crucial match but there was an eerie silence and the support staff and substitute only cheered after securing an early lead in the Bundesliga.

Football has returned after a long hiatus but it still feels so empty from inside. A match which is considered as the ‘mother of all derbies’ in Germany, happening behind closed doors felt like a recipe without salt. Then came the innovative goal celebrations, where the BVB players maintained social distance and high fives were replaced by elbow bumps. The substitute bench was a lot different than usual as the players sat maintaining social distancing and also wore masks. It was a unique feeling as a viewer and it took time to settle in.

Dortmund were at their usual best with Julian Brandt showing magic in midfield as Raphael Guerreiro and Thorgan Hazard were also brilliant on the night. As match referee Deniz Aytekin blew the final whistle the reality struck harder, the BVB players did their usual crowd applause as they went towards the Yellow Wall and did what they usually do, somethings never change.

Football behind closed doors is different, teams are more relaxed and they can play the ball out from the back and defend with vigour and determination as Christian Streich’s men did against RB Leipzig at the Red Bull Arena. Freiburg almost came up with an upset in the opening matchday of the return as Robin Koch’s late winner was not allowed to stand after a video referral.

Fans around the globe rejoiced in their own way amidst the pandemic

Later in the evening, the match had a blistering start as Alassane Plea looked like he missed scoring. The Frenchman went on a darting run and slotted it part Kevin Trapp all within the first minute after kickoff. On a normal day, the goal would have been celebrated with the travelling fans.

Marco Rose’s men stormed past an out of form Eintracht Frankfurt side but the best moment of the match came when Borussia Monchengladbach were on the counter and Plea was quick to notice on rushing Trapp as the Frenchman delicately pushed it towards Jonas Hoffman who had a clear shot at goal.

However, the German-controlled it and then took some extra touches before launching the shot. But the time he took on the ball allowed M Hinterreger to get back at goal and he came up with an outstanding goal-line clearance, something which would have been celebrated with the loudest cheers by the fans despite the one-sided scoreline. That adrenaline rush during these games are injected by the fans and it felt soul-less at times.

Bundesliga, however, are doing everything in power to maintain the smooth flow of football. They have restricted minimum presence of staff from each team, fewer ball boys (only four ball boys were present in Dortmund vs Schalke match), sanitised balls and even the commentators sat in different booths. It will take time for everyone associated with the league and even the viewers all across the globe to get used to these changes.

Bayern Munich visited Union Berlin and had a strong outing away from home despite not looking to be at their best. Robert Lewandowski and Benjamin Pavard scored on the night to extend their lead on top.

However, after the game speaking about the match, Thomas Muller shared his feelings to Sky Germany. He said, ” It felt a bit like an old masters, 7 pm under the floodlights game. Perhaps it was a small advantage for us today (away at Union Berlin) because the atmosphere can make the difference in this ground.”

It is no secret that Union Berlin have an extremely loyal and passionate fanbase and having them in here would have made life difficult for the record champions who weren’t at their best on the night.

However, things changed drastically when the Bavarians hosted Eintracht Frankfurt at the Allianz Arena and the usual atmosphere was missing. There were recorded chants and cheers being played in the stadium as Hansi Flick’s men cruised past the Eagles with a resounding 5-2 win as they gear up for the Der Klassiker.

The media professional at several matches were also kept under strict supervision and it just a matter of adapting yourself to the changes. They weren’t allowed to interact with any of the players. They did a post-match interview only with the television rights holder. While post-match press conferences with the two coaches happened virtually.

Thomas Nowag, a Sport-Information-Dienst reporter who was covering the Rivierderby told Athletic, “After the game, there was no chance to speak to any of the players they did interviews with the TV rights holders. We could only pose questions to two of the coaches via WhatsApp group. The answers came in a virtual press conference broadcast by Borrusia’s in house channel. We watched it on iPads and phones.”

Lucien Favre who should be elated after his side’s emphatic 4-0 demolition against arch-rivals Schalke, admitted that it was a different experience for him. He said, “It was hard for me to properly evaluate whether my team had played well because the game had taken place in a kind of vacuum.”

The last game from Matchday 26 where Werder Bremen hosted in-form Bayer Leverkusen, apart from the empty stands and the above-mentioned changes in the game there was another change. Leverkusen head coach Peter Bosz fielded Kai Havertz in an unusual centre forward role.

The 20-year old is considered as one of the best talents in Germany and his two-headed goals prove that he has a forward’s instinct and can play a crucial role in the buildup.

On matchday 27, Havertz started from where he left and scored yet another brace against Borussia Monchengladbach in front of 13,000 cardboard cutout fans, something which the Foals did to motivate their players. However, this initiative was not welcomed by the Gladbach fans as some banners in the stands upheld their protest. ‘Fussball ohne fans ist nichts’ — (Football without fans is nothing) — read one of the banners, while another proclaimed: For Borussia, against ghost games.

Most of the Gladbach fans were against closed-door matches and they thought that amid this coronavirus crisis, Bundesliga should have taken things slowly. The Monchengladbach management, however, thought this would be welcomed by their fans and also supporters of the game worldwide but the response they received wasn’t expected. It also did the team no good as they fell 1-3 at home against Leverkusen.

Apart from Leipzig, the top six teams in the league table have all started the resumption with a positive result. However, throughout matchday 26, none of the home teams apart from Dortmund could bag three points, proving how home advantage has become dilute under these circumstances.

Julian Nagelsmann’s team redeemed themselves on matchday 27 with a 5-0 mauling of Mainz in the next matchday as Timo Werner scored yet another hattrick and became the top scorer for Leipzig in their history. While Hertha dominated the second Berlin Derby in Bundesliga history with a 4-0 thrashing of Union Berlin at home.

These are tough times and as we have adapted to life in lockdown under several rules and regulations, football will gradually adapt to the changes before returning to normalcy. But for the time being, Bundesliga’s commencement has given hope and encouragement to other football associations to resume their league when the time is right.

Football has that power to again bring joy to the masses and can be the buoyant force in helping the people overcome these trouble times. Just like SC Freiburg head coach Christian Streich told Sky Germany after his team’s 1-1 draw against Leipzig in Bundesliga, “We are happy that we’re able to work again-like a chef who’s back cooking nice dishes for the people.”

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