DUBAI: Football is back. But not as we know it.
Signal Iduna Park, usually heaving with 80,000 fans on match day, was empty. The Yellow Wall, where Borussia Dortmund’s most colorful supporters stand, was missing the black and yellow scarfs and banners. And there was no pre-match rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
In the age of coronavirus, the “Revierderby” against Schalke, one of Germany’s most passionate fixtures, was played behind closed doors for the first time ever.
In any event, Dortmund did not miss the support, going on to claim an easy 4-0 win over their fierce rivals.
But this, and five other matches taking place across Germany, held significance far beyond mere results. This was a test.
The resumption of football in Germany was more about whether football can get back to any sense of normality in the coming months, and crucially, with no health risks to anyone involved. The jury will be out over long term consequences, but as a first step back this will be a case of so far, so good.
Though competitive football has been taking place around the world, as in South Korea’s K-League, this was the first of Europe’s big leagues to return to action. The Premier League, La Liga and Series A, in particular, would certainly be on the look out for any pointers here.
Among fans on social media there were excitement and skepticism in equal measure.
“Football without supporters is nothing,” as the famous slogan goes, was a common refrain.
Outwardly, the action itself on the pitch seemed to be a case of business as usual. There were no obvious signs of nerves regarding safety issues, with both teams, as expected, not backing out of any physical challenges. There was, not surprisingly, an element of inevitable ring-rustiness.
“This is not football,” one fan, Nick Collins, tweeted. On the lack of fans, @NinaKauser posted: “Must be weird playing a rival team without fans.”
There were plenty of jokes too.
“VAR. It could start an argument in an empty stadium,” Scraggy_74 tweeted.
Even Kylian Mbappe was sat in front of his television following the action.
Once the cobwebs were cast aside, it was Dortmund who were the more dominant team in the opening stages, though Schalke’s Daniel Caligiuri almost gave the visitors the lead on 25 minutes but was denied by Roman Burki in goal.
Minutes later, Erling Braut Haaland, the revelation of this interrupted season, got on the end of a Thorgan Hazard cross to give the home team a deserved lead. The dancing celebration was social distanced and funny, though somewhat out of place considering the physical interactions on display.
The play was often scrappy, and a poor clearance by Schalke’s goalkeeper was ruthlessly punished by Dortmund, with Raphael Guerreiro doubling the lead just before half-time.
Even with 45 minutes left to play, the game looked up for Schalke.
Certainly when you factor in the tiredness expected to creep into the latter stages of the match after such a long lay-off, a dramatic comeback looked unlikely.
Any doubt was removed three minutes after the restart when Hazard finished clinically after being played through by Haaland; 3-0, game over.
When Guerreiro made it 4-0 with a deft finish with the outside of the left boot, again after being set up by the irrepressible Haaland, Schalke looked ready to head home with almost half an hour left.
The scoreline did raise the emory of a famous derby from November 2017, when after racing into a four-goal lead after only 25 minutes, Dortmund were astonishingly held to a draw thanks to four goals by Schalke in the last half an hour.
Here there was more chance of four more Dortmund goals than of a miracle comeback. But having guaranteed the three points, Dortmund eased off.
At full time, having reduced Bayern Munich’s lead at the top of the table to a point, the Dortmund players, tongue in cheek, applauded the empty Yellow Wall as is customary.
“The team have been working hard, so I’m not surprised (at the result),” man of the match Haaland said. “Of course, normally there are 80,000 here … but we were never afraid of anything, and you saw today we had full control. A good start.”
Understated, and in the circumstances, wise words.
Organizers of the Bundesliga, Premier League and others, not to mention the players and fans, will all be cautiously optimistic too. Football is back, but the road to normality remains a very long one.