Bayern has won the Bundesliga the past seven seasons. Its dogged pursuer is Borussia Dortmund, which is the Oakland A’s to Bayern’s Yankees. Its sporting director is Michael Zorc, who could be played by Brad Pitt if someone made the German version of “Moneyball.” (“Das Geld Ball,” I believe it’d be.) Dortmund is forever finding great young players and selling them, sometimes even to hated Bayern, only to go find more. Dortmund hires terrific coaches: Jurgen Klopp, whose Liverpool is the runaway Premier League leader, worked there; so did Thomas Tuchel, now of Paris Saint-Germain.
The Bundesliga returned on Saturday. Dortmund played Schalke. Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion seats 81,365. Counting the teams, coaches, refs, security guards and TV crew, there mightn’t have been 365 in the place. Yes, it was still Bundesliga soccer. The 19-year-old Erling Haaland scored the first goal. (He was supposed to sign with Man U.; don’t get me started.) Dortmund won 4-nil. It didn’t feel like a real game, though. It felt like a slightly spirited scrimmage.
The only noise was players yelling to one another, which apparently they do a lot, though if you watch soccer you mightn’t have heard it until now. Soccer crowds are the loudest. There’s always a chant or a song going, and sometimes the smallish number of visiting supporters make it their mission to out-shout the home folks. (Do I know the Man U. songs? Possibly. Do I sing them in the shower? No comment.)
Here you heard the ball being kicked and guys yelling about where to kick it next. When Haaland scored, his teammates celebrated at a social distance. When the match ended, the Dortmund players did as they usually do: They walked, though with conspicuous space between them, to the stadium’s south end, which is known as “Die Gelbe Wand,” which means “The Yellow Wall.” (Dortmund wears black and yellow.) Every other day, there’d have been a mass of supporters waving huge banners and brandishing scarves to greet their conquering heroes. The only sound this time was the players applauding the empty seats.
Bayern played Union Berlin on Sunday. In soccer, teams usually walk out side by side. The entrances are now staggered. Subs and coaches don’t sit together on benches. They sit in the stands, three empty seats between them. They wear masks.
On-field players, however, aren’t masked. This bothered me no end. On corner kicks, there are still 18 bodies in the penalty area, jostling for position and leaping for a header. If it’s important that those who aren’t playing wear masks — anyone subbed out gets handed a fresh one — why aren’t the guys who are running and jumping and breathing hard similarly outfitted? Isn’t COVID-19 transmitted by respiratory droplets? Isn’t that the reason for the 6-foot distancing?
Even while watching Germany’s two best teams, I thought less about the score than I did the coronavirus. Were these guys safe enough? When Robert Lewandowski converted a penalty for Bayern, he didn’t hug anybody. He did, however, bump elbows with his mates. What happens if somebody skins an elbow?
I nearly had a conniption when Manuel Neuer, the famous Bayern keeper, readied for a goal kick by — apologies for shouting — SPITTING INTO BOTH HIS GLOVES. (So much for the fuss made over using disinfectant wipes on the ball.)
At their heart, sports are supposed to a distraction. Watching the Bundesliga only induced more shades of worry. Do they need to be playing? What happens if somebody tests positive after the game? Would those teams be allowed to play again next week? One of the regular Union Berlin starters, we were informed, wasn’t available for Sunday’s match. He’s recovering from COVID.
And, given that I’m a sportswriter on the high side of 60, I kept asking myself: Would I want to be there? (Might be a moot point: Only 10 reporters were allowed at Bayern-Union. Can’t imagine the American model will be much different.)
As is the case with our re-opening of states, there’s no European consensus re: soccer. France’s Ligue 1 and the Netherlands’ Eredivisie canceled the rest of their seasons. Spain and Italy aren’t scheduled to play until the middle of June. England just moved to resume training in limited numbers at social distances.
We ask again: If no fans are there to watch an event happen, why stage the “event”? (TV money, I know.) I like soccer because games are wild; I learned Saturday/Sunday that 90 percent of the wildness stems from the setting. Bayern and Dortmund played and won, but it was the sporting equivalent of the tree falling in the forest. Except for the familiar shirts, these guys could have been anybody in the park having a kickabout. No fans, no frenzy. No fans, no point?
I watched soccer thinking it’d be nice to resume my weekend routine. The more I saw, the less I cared. It wasn’t fun. It was just … odd. If the fan-less Bundesliga is a preview of how U.S. sports will be when they resume, I’m not sure I’ll care much about those, either. The matches didn’t make me forget reality. On the contrary, they reminded me of it – and I really don’t need reminding.