It wasn’t Liverpool vs Manchester United or Arsenal vs Spurs. But it was live football. After a two-month coronavirus shutdown, that was good enough for many match-starved fans. The German Bundesliga yesterday became the first major league to resume, with five games played behind closed doors, including a Ruhr derby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04. The restart was a moment that fans, administrators, TV bosses and politicians hope will prove a first morale-boosting step towards normality.
From Dortmund, BT Sport’s coverage panned round a cavernous and virtually empty Westfalenstadion. Substitutes perched on seats two metres apart wearing face masks, while the players’ shouts echoed eerily. The fans were missing, and they were missed.
The combination of recorded cheers and tinny music that accompanied each of Dortmund’s four goals made their absence starker.
“It’s like going to a nightclub without music or a pub without beer,” said Dr Mark Doidge, a senior research fellow in sport at the University of Brighton. “Sport is nothing without emotion.”
Doidge is a huge fan and has followed the Bundesliga for several years, enticed, as he says, by the “full stadiums of active fans, creating a spectacle”.
“I’m finding myself torn,” he admitted. “I really want to watch some football and I like watching the Bundesliga. But do I want to buy into a system where the fans themselves in Germany are saying we don’t want the games to be taking place without us there.
“The television companies scrabbling to get football back because they paid for it might be need to be careful what they wish for because the spectacle won’t be very good.”
Since lockdown began, sports fans have found various ways to fill their time.
Surreal sporting commentary has become a niche genre. Andrew Cotter, the golf commentator, has gone viral with wryly amusing play-by-plays of the exploits of his two labradors, Olive and Mabel.
Nick Heath usually commentates on rugby matches but has been watching squirrels, dogs and birds in his south London park and posting the results on Instagram and Tik Tok as part of his #LifeCommentary. He has gone from 15,000 followers to 130,000 – most of them women.
“I’ve had a lot of messages from women saying ‘I don’t really do sports – that’s my husband’s domain. But if this is what it looks, like then count me in’,” he said.
In the end though, says Heath, live professional sport needs spectators in the stands. “Riding the crowd noise is important,” he says. “Commentators will have to find that joy, that euphoria that come with those big moments in sport.”
Watching the Bundesliga, it’s clear that if and when it gets under way, lockdown Premier League will never be able to provide moments such as the reaction to Sergio Aguero’s goal to win the league for Manchester City in the last seconds of the final game in 2012.
“Embarrassingly,” says Heath, “I’ve timed [commentator] Martin Tyler’s pause from when he says Aguero to the next time he says anything. It’s nine seconds. You can hear it in his voice as he realises what it means, and the crowd does too.”