• The television broadcast during the afternoon made immediately clear that every shout, sound of the referee’s whistle, and thud of the ball bouncing off the empty stands would create a haunting atmosphere at all of the matches played in this way.
• Monchengladbach did not exactly follow the timeline for the arrival of the teams; they changed their clothes in the hotel instead of using the stadium’s locker rooms.
The eyes of the football world were on Germany when the Bundesliga returned to action on Saturday.
It became the first major European league to return since football was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, with six fixtures on Saturday and a further two matches on Sunday.
All games were played under heavy precautions laid out by the German Football League. A strict hygiene and safety protocol, including the banning of crowds, was necessary to get the go-ahead from political authorities.
What was it like at the first closed-door matches? German football expert Constantin Eckner was at Eintracht Frankfurt’s 3-1 defeat by Borussia Monchengladbach to find out.
‘Some people were fitted with tracking devices’
Staging spectator-free matches and thus removing the league’s biggest asset, its atmosphere, was a major talking point ahead of the restart on Saturday and will probably remain one, as public gatherings are prohibited in Germany at least until the end of August.
The television broadcast during the afternoon made immediately clear that every shout, sound of the referee’s whistle, and thud of the ball bouncing off the empty stands would create a haunting atmosphere at all of the matches played in this way.
The experience for those inside the stadium was even more bizarre at times. According to the league’s hygiene protocol, only up to 320 people, including the players, staff, club officials, journalists, broadcasters, and security personnel were allowed to enter a stadium divided into three sections - the field area, the stands, and the outside area.
Journalists had permission to only go to section two, the stands. We were expected to arrive at the stadium more than 90 minutes before kick-off to get through a security check while already wearing a mask.
Approaching Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena, it was noticeable how uncommonly quiet it was. Usually 90 minutes before a match, the car park would already be filling up, with people swarming towards the entries. Not this time.
The atmosphere was chastened, with everyone keeping their mouths under face masks and obeying physical distancing rules. There was no chatting or joking with the security personnel. Instead, everyone that wanted to enter the stadium acted seriously, realising how surreal the situation was.
At the entrance, security officers were waiting to check the accreditations of everyone, but more importantly to receive forms with questions about recent symptoms and infections in the family. Temperature checks were also performed.
Moreover, Eintracht Frankfurt decided to test special small transponders as tracking devices. Around 30 people were asked to wear these transponders the entire time, tracking their movement and alerting them if they came too close to another transponder carrier.
‘Some precautions seemed only for show’
In Frankfurt’s stadium, journalists can reach the press area by elevator. Once the elevator door opened, the empty stands made for a sorry sight while music was being played over the loudspeakers for whatever reason. Frankfurt’s stadium DJ decided to play the Ghostbusters song shortly before kick-off. Spectator-free games are usually called ‘ghost matches’ (Geisterspiele) in Germany.
The two teams tried to adhere to the litany of rules included in the hygiene protocol. However, there was still some uncertainty. Assistant coaches and bench players were initially asked to wear masks all the time, but they were not sure whether they had to wear them during warm up on the pitch.
Monchengladbach did not exactly follow the timeline for the arrival of the teams; they changed their clothes in the hotel instead of using the stadium’s locker rooms. They only put on their boots before going out on the field.
Once the pre-match procedure started, the precautions immediately before kick-off appeared to be pointless given the full-contact nature of the game. Players were not allowed to shake hands or gather for a team picture. The referee and the two team captains stayed a couple of yards apart for the coin toss.
However, the match looked as normal as ever, with players not hesitant to engage in physical duels or getting close to each other in the moments before a corner kick. But after a goal, the players kept distance to celebrate. As sophisticated as the Bundesliga’s hygiene protocol might be, it still has its weak points because some precautions are seemingly only for show.
‘Sterile and eerie’
As an observer, you got used to the eerie silence. The instructions by the coaches and players echoed around the empty stadium.
When one Monchengladbach defender screamed ‘Jonas’ twice, he demanded midfielder Jonas Hofmann to come closer to him. When Frankfurt head coach Adi Hutter shouted ‘play’ across the field, he was annoyed that one of his players held on to the ball for too long. Successful tackles or dribbles were accompanied by a smattering of applause from the substitutes’ bench and the first few rows of the stands where other players were sitting.
This kind of sterile football is isolated from any outside emotion. Fans do not only scream and cheer throughout the match, but they also react to success and failure. Behind closed doors, the matches feel less consequential despite the outcome of the season still being at stake.
The evening match on Saturday quickly turned into a one-sided affair, with Monchengladbach leading by two goals after only seven minutes. Frankfurt struggled to fight back and could not count on the support of more than 40,000 passionate fans as is usually the case inside the Commerzbank Arena.
When Frankfurt’s Andre Silva scored a late goal to make it 3-1, the usual celebratory music shrilled over the loudspeakers, even though there was no one there to celebrate and the home team were about to lose. It was the bizarre end to a bizarre first day of top-flight football behind closed doors.