A lot of it was pretty normal.
Enough football behind-closed-doors has been televised to be familiar with the game a cappella: raw bars of dull thuds of boots on ball and the plink as net pulls tight on metal. Just as they’ll tell you with hip hop, the oldies did it best. Educate yourself with some Hugo Almeida live, circa 2005.
Shouts from the touchline and on the field carry further, and for what you lose in the pantomime cries of “man on” from the stands you gain with the audible goading. Luis Suarez berating not just Las Palmas players but some of his own Barcelona teammates in 2017 should be studied in shit-talking courses across the globe. Jean-Claire Todibo’s jibe to Erling Braut Haaland about his grandma during the Revierderby suggests that needs to be an actual thing.
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But it would be flippant to not recognise the difference this time. Crowd trouble and political instability are one thing. The weekend’s round of Bundesliga matches were a preview of how football must be for the foreseeable future. Coronavirus has fundamentally changed how we go about in this world.
For once, the word “dystopian” might be absolutely appropriate here. Club accounts tweeting photos of their players getting last-minute temperature checks instead of trudging onto the team bus, commentators showing us their makeshift broadcasting booths at home and Owen Hargreaves thrown up on BT Sport’s big screen as a “studio” pundit, our new Zordon of football.
This is life not as we know it, let alone sport.
There was a lot of what we knew: Bayern Munich won, Haaland continued his streak and VAR nipped some celebrations in the bud. And among the 22 goals, plenty we didn’t.
In lieu of a dugout, coaches and substitutes daisy-chained all along the touchline, sat on their own as if they’d just been scolded by a primary school teacher. All wearing face masks, of course. Managers removed theirs to bellow instructions in-play, though the peak of mask-related footballing came when Thomas Delaney snatched his from a Borussia Dortmund official, irked at being substituted after 68 minutes.
Haaland’s opener twenty nine minutes into the Bundesliga’s restart led to some odd “first school disco” appropriate distance swaying. More widely, celebratory elbow bumps were the way to go, and it was amusing seeing players wheeling away to celebrate and realising there was no crowd to gee up or shush. The edge of the penalty area was noticeably less crowded for Ramy Bensebaini spot-kick for Borussia Monchengladbach’s third against Frankfurt.
Post-match press conferences were done with boom mics wrapped in cling film, like some kind of space-age toffee apple.
By the time Bayern had restored their four point lead on Sunday afternoon, the “novelty” had started to wear off. Players were noticeably more tactile and for all the trepidation leading into this weekend, there was a sense from the players at full time that, heck, this was not so different. Dare it be said… with some benefits?
Anecdotally at least, the lack of fans seemed to lend itself to more balanced refereeing. Marginal calls in RB Leipzig’s draw with SC Freiburg were split right down the middle perhaps because there were no cries of the derision from the home support to influence decision-making. Similarly, there was no crowding of referees given, well, it’s literally against government advice. Rumours that you can transmit coronavirus by waving an imaginary card are, for now, unfounded.
Viewers from home might need a bit more time to fully acclimatise. No longer can you drift away from the game and to your phone knowing your attention will switch back as soon as you hear the elevated hum of a promising attack. Though for what it’s worth, the weekend’s second-screen experience was noticeably worse with everyone clamouring to do less-rubbish versions of the same joke.
Of course, it was not as good as it usually is. There’s a glory in the joys of football that are accentuated by the individual joy experienced as a collective in such tight clusters. It’s why we go, and it’s why we congregate when we can’t and, in some ways, not even being able to share the television viewing experience with mates or family took the glow away from what was genuinely a ray of sunshine in these dark times.
If there is one thing to quell the distress of knowing this is how football will be indefinitely it was that, simply, there can be no other way.
Yes, in many ways football without fans is nothing. But the only equation that matters to those in charge is that football equals money and money helps football clubs survive. And thus, football without football clubs is nothing.