On Saturday I was suddenly a VIP. OK, I couldn’t be proud of that because all 239 people who were allowed to spectate at Augsburg’s match against Wolfsburg had to enter the stadium through the VIP entrance. And we weren’t treated how you imagine the rich and famous might be: first I had to fill in a questionnaire, then my temperature was taken. Welcome to the Bundesliga, welcome to games closed to the public. In Germany we call these Geisterspiele – ghost games.
The Bundesliga is the first major league in the world to resume operations. The world watched us this weekend. And the feeling before and during the match was memorable – or rather, strange.
Matches in the post-lockdown Bundesliga are very intimate events. Only 10 journalists from the written press are allowed in and you have to register a few days before the game. When I send my email to the club, I ask my girlfriend: “Are you worried if I go to the stadium on Saturday?” She thinks for a moment, then says: “With all the regulations that you have to comply with? No, I’m really not worried.”
At Augsburg on Saturday there was a thick catalogue of safety protocols we had to follow. We sat at least 1.5 metres apart in the press gallery. We had to wear face coverings for the entire time we were in the stadium, which was particularly annoying when I did a live video talk. The damn thing always slips down when speaking. But OK, special times require special measures.
There are some advantages. Getting to the stadium is easier and faster than ever. No waiting times, no traffic jams.
Inside the arena, everything is different. The substitutes sit in the main grandstand. As the players warm up you can hear the constant “splash, splash” of the goalkeepers catching balls. There is no stadium announcer, but the music is played so loud you can hardly hear your own voice.
Once the game starts you can hear every word that is spoken on the pitch. The instructions of the coaches echo through the arena. “Let’s go!” “Man coverage!” Only the Wolfsburg manager was present at the game, though, as a result of probably the craziest story so far of football’s Covid-19 era. Heiko Herrlich, who took charge of Augsburg shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic and had not yet coached a game, revealed in his press conference on Thursday that he had been to the chemist’s to buy toothpaste during the seven-day quarantine period prescribed for all teams before the league resumed.
His actions caused widespread discussion and anger, but when I asked the club immediately afterwards how they would deal with the coach’s statement, the answer was: “Where do you see the problem?”
Later that evening Augsburg announced Herrlich had voluntarily taken himself out of the Wolfsburg game. This episode shows just how sensitive the topic of safety and hygiene is. In the end, Herrlich could not stand on the sidelines, his waiting time extended again.
Back to the game: the teams come out one after the other, first home, then away. Pleasantly there are fewer theatrics and arguments; on the pitch it is a purer football than before. The atmosphere, on the other hand, is very, very strange. When Augsburg equalise to make it 1-1, the goal jingle is played. But where 25,000 fans would normally sing along, there is now silence.
I am also learning. It is now extremely dangerous to look at your phone during the game. Let’s face it, this has become a habit for most of us, but now there is no fan noise to signal an impending chance. Games without a crowd require more attention. And they promote attention: I observe more closely how the teams move tactically, who covers which opponent, who marks whom in what system at corners. Probably because the distraction from the outside is no longer there.
The players seem to have got used to the new rules on the field. After Wolfsburg’s opening goal the scorer, Renato Steffen, and his teammates perform a little dance at a safe distance. After their last-minute winner, their coach, Oliver Glasner, wants to run from his zone to embrace Daniel Ginczek, but then remembers: “Oops, that’s not allowed.”
Glasner explains his thought process in that moment at a virtual press conference after his side’s 2-1 win. While reporters listen in the press gallery on the third floor of the stadium, the coaches speak in the press conference room on the ground floor having logged in with an app. It only partially works: our microphone does not function so we have to write the questions to the coaches in a chat box.
Not everything is going well on this first weekend of the new era. Much is new, a lot unfamiliar, some very strange. And yet we Germans are somehow proud that with our meticulousness we managed to get the ball rolling again.