Relief, uneasiness and a hunt for normalcy amidst a pandemic as Bundesliga restarts after 66 days with 'ghost games'
Bundesliga resumes after over two months of a coronavirus pandemic enforced break in the middle of the season.
In the middle of an hour-long interaction with international journalists, Borussia Dortmund CMO Carsten Cramer reached for a German idiom to explain the current state of affairs. “It’s not a wishing concert!” he said.
Simply put, Cramer meant that as much as any club wishes to have its loyal fanbase chanting from the stands, the coronavirus pandemic has ensured that Bundesliga matches will be played behind closed doors when the German league becomes the first big football league in Europe to resume this weekend.
“Every time someone visits a Borussia Dortmund game for the first time, we like to tell them how important the interaction between fans and players is. We like to tell them how important the Yellow Wall is. So of course, we’d never prefer to play without spectators. But in a crisis like this, games behind a curtain are better than no games. We’ve had lots of weeks to accept this situation,” said Cramer.
A financial question
Cramer pointed out that Dortmund were losing approximately around three million euros per unplayed match day. As per his calculations, Germany’s domestic football ecosystem directly or indirectly provides employment to around 60,000 people in the country.
“We cannot deny the fact that restarting the Bundesliga was a financial question,” admitted Cramer. “Revenues are missing. But expenses for every club are continuing.”
Cramer said that in view of the situation, Borussia Dortmund players as well as management readily accepted salary cuts in just an hour-long meeting.
But accepting pay cuts and actually taking the field to play football when most of the world cocoons itself indoors required two varying degrees of commitment from the players. Cramer said that no Borussia Dortmund players were reluctant to attend training sessions or play games despite the coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of easing. For the past week not just Dortmund players, but those from the rest of the 17 Bundesliga clubs are staying quarantined in hotels. Players are also going to be tested every three or four days.
“We had an obligation to keep players in a hotel for a week before the Bundesliga starts. The players can stay at home between the 27th and 32nd match days. After seeing how the situation is at that moment, the Bundesliga will decide again whether to quarantine players in hotels again for the remaining two match days,” he said.
Should any player test positive after the restart, the league has created a match day schedule which makes it possible for some games to be postponed.
“A player testing positive for coronavirus won’t be a catastrophe,” said Cramer.
“The alternative (to playing behind closed doors) is football clubs not existing. In times like these, when teams in Bundesliga and other parts of the world are in serious trouble, it’s a very good compromise to play without spectators as long as we know that this is limited to a certain time,” Cramer said before adding wistfully, “It’s not the time for wishes and dreams.”
Wishes and dreams
Trailing leaders Bayern Munich by four points, Dortmund have set their sights on winning the Bundesliga this season ― a title snatched out of their grasp on the last day of the season the previous year.
Elsewhere in the capital, Union Berlin fans had begun the season by considering it as somewhat of a vacation in the top tier of Bundesliga. After decades of playing in the lower divisions, the club had managed to earn promotion to the top of the German football’s pyramid and hopes were low. Union Berlin president Dirk Zingler had even told the fans that they would treat the season like a holiday in the top-tier (before embracing relegation).
But the season has been a dream of sorts for the club with modest means and even more modest ambitions. They’re currently 11th in the standings, and looking likely to stay at least for another season.
“Zingler actually changed the motto: ‘No more holidays, we came to stay.’ But nobody had believed that we would look so good in the table at this point,” said Chris Lopatta, a diehard Union Berlin fan.
For fans like Lopatta, the league restart will bring mixed feelings. The fans hate the idea of ‘geisterspiele’ or ghost games: matches played in empty stadiums.
“It’s unnatural, not real, and false ― these matches without fans,” said Lopatta. “It’s not the same. We need the crowds, the friends, the sound, the noise, the chants, the party, the sadness ― together! Football is for you and me ― not for f*****g industries!”
But there’s also an understanding of why the games need to be played behind closed doors.
“I have mixed feelings (about ghost games). My heart says no. The brain says yes, because of the survival of the football clubs. They need the money from the broadcasters. I have come to terms with the fact that I will not be able to go back to the stadium for a year. The best thing would have been to probably freeze the season for a year and continue in March 2021 right there again: with a game between Union Berlin and Bayern Munich in front of 38,000 spectators. Unfortunately, that won't work,” said Lopatta.
Fan groups such as Fanszenen Deutschlands, a Germany-wide union of ultras, have slammed the plan to restart while branding it 'an insult to society'.
Cramer said he understood why all fans were not yet convinced that the time is right for the return of Bundesliga this weekend.
“Right now German society is split 50-50 about restarting the Bundesliga. We need the backing of the people, and therefore we have to check our connection to the people,” he said.
Checking their connection with people
All around the Bundesliga, clubs have done various things to ensure that fans feel connected to them even in the scenario of ghost games. Borussia Monchengladbach, for example, have told fans they can buy cardboard cutouts of themselves and have them placed in the stands for games. RB Leipzig have told their fan clubs they can hang their banners in the stands and can leave signs with personalised messages for players. VfL Wolfsburg players have delivered gift bags to nearly 3,500 members of the 'WölfiClub', Wolfsburg's children fan club. Other clubs too have used players or staff to reach out to neighbourhoods around stadiums to deliver care packages.
For fans of clubs like Union Berlin, the restart will be particularly difficult to endure considering their bond with the club. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the club allowed their supporters to bring their chairs and sofas to the stadium to watch screenings of games on a big screen. Lopatta is among those fans who have donated blood in 2004 to raise money for the cash-strapped club. Four years later, he joined some 2,400 other Union fans to renovate their stadium since the club could not to pay workers to do it.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands, the Union Berlin fans have navigated through many tough times in the past. Even now, with social distancing, quarantine, and ghost games becoming the new normal, a sense of community prevails among the fan base. Recently some Union fans started sewing their own masks to sell. With the money they raised from these masks, they bought pfannkuchen (pancakes), which were then distributed to care homes and hospitals in the area. Other fans have gone shopping for elderly residents of Berlin. There’s even an internet radio station which helps supporters of the club stay in touch with each other.
“There’s really a feeling of going through this together,” said Stefanie Fiebrig, who has been running Textilvergehen, a fan blog for Union Berlin, since 2006.
Chasing normalcy amidst a pandemic
Fiebrig is one of those fans who are conflicted about the league returning 'early'.
“Some fans of course are glad to have football back, as it is a part of their normal lives. Others feel like it might be too early,” she said.
Cramer said he was hoping that the restart of the Bundesliga will bring some semblance of normalcy to many football fans.
“All of us are kind of relieved that football is coming back this weekend, although people have so many concerns than being interested in football. If football can be a part of coming back to normal life, then we should take this responsibility. We’re relieved… to say we are happy might be too euphoric because there’s still so much pressure on all of us. But we’re relieved and kind of satisfied that we can restart,” Cramer said.
“I fully understand why the clubs at least want to give it a try. We all want our clubs to survive this crisis. Therefore, I respect the decision of the league to continue playing,” reasoned Fiebrig. “But personally, I feel quite uneasy with that. coronavirus is still there, a vaccine’s not available yet. I’m still working from my home office, my kids can’t go to school on a regular basis ― we’re just not back to normal yet. But I also see that we have to start somewhere. I think hygiene standards are much higher at the Bundesliga clubs than in any public school building. So it might even be a good idea to start there. I just want nobody to ruin his health, especially not for my entertainment.”
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