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The Bundesliga Exit Survey

Professional soccer resumed in Germany this weekend with games played in empty stadiums

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Bundesliga became the first major European soccer league to resume play this weekend. League leaders Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both won, but much of the attention was paid to the empty stadiums the games were played in and the safety measures that were enacted. Ringer staffers offered their thoughts on the weekend’s action.

What’s your tweet-length review of this weekend’s games?

Jomi Adeniran: Bayern is red, Dortmund is yellow and black, it looked sloppy at times but the Bundesliga is back!

Kevin Clark: Literally any sports is better than none.

Matt James: No matter how beautiful the game, the foreboding cloud of COVID-19 looms large in your peripheral vision.

Micah Peters: Don’t hear that I’m not grateful to have soccer back, but without the full-throated support of rabid fans, I felt like I was watching U-23 matches. I need a Revierderby I can see and hear clearly.

Shaker Samman: VAR IS BACK, BABY.

Rodger Sherman: Borussia Mönchengladbach? More like Borussia Imgladthatsportsareback!

Miles Surrey: Not as depressing as Interstellar’s New York Yankees, but a surreal affair—the rare time when the results of the matches took a back seat to the fact that they were even happening.

Tyler Tynes: Dortmund didn’t have to flex on the entire league like that. It’s clear they’ve been on the training pitch and not social distancing. Schalke should be ashamed of that effort. Also, shout-out Lilian Thuram’s son, Marcus.

How did it feel to watch live sports again?

Adeniran: I never thought I’d be happy to see VAR again, but here we are. Honestly, it felt amazing. It’s been two whole months without anything resembling team sports, so being able to watch it again felt like things were coming back to normal, even just a little bit.

Clark: By the time I watched Bundesliga this weekend, I’d already watched multiple UFC cards, so it was not particularly jarring in that regard. By the end of the weekend I’d consumed not only UFC and Bundesliga, but also some exhibition golf and NASCAR. This, however, was quite different: It was the first true professional league back. The empty stands were shown often and, well, everything just seemed emptier than the other sports. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—hell, we’ll have to get used to it—but if this was the new normal, it’s going to take some adjustment.

James: Roughly 20 minutes into watching Dortmund-Schalke, I realized that I had momentarily completely forgotten about the pandemic. The weird echoing of voices in an empty stadium normalized. Coronavirus is like a scratch in the center of the lens of your soccer-watching glasses—it’s impossible to ignore until your brain tunes it out.

Peters: It’s weird to see the hygienekonzept in practice—instead of a stern handshake after the coin toss, the captains and head referee gave each other the thumbs-up. Erling Braut Haaland scored for Borussia Dortmund on Saturday and was never swarmed by his teammates. The experience was like seeing a cat on a leash.

Samman: Nothing about watching the Bundesliga this weekend felt right. Not the stadiums, thankfully empty. Not the players, who were far from their physical peaks. And not the act of playing the games themselves. Yes, more than a dozen Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs were at risk of financial disaster if the season were permanently halted, including Schalke—a historic German power. But I felt uncomfortable watching from my apartment in Los Angeles in the early hours of Saturday morning.

In the past few days, Los Angeles mandated that all persons outside—running, walking, shopping, or otherwise—were required to wear masks at all times. Coronavirus deaths in the United States are on pace to surpass 100,000 before the end of May. And while Germany saw its daily reported infections total drop below 400 on May 10 for the first time since March 14, the days since have seen as many totals above 900 infections as it has below.

Sherman: What do you mean watch live sports “again?” Buddy, I went 7-for-7 betting on the Nicaraguan soccer playoffs. I’m honestly disappointed in all of you who didn’t spend the first two months of quarantine seeking out obscure live sports across the planet. You’re the weird ones, not me! Right?

Surrey: Bittersweet. It’s nice to get the weekend morning routine back—coffee, soccer, cat in lap—but you only have to look at what happened to Dynamo Dresden to see how quickly the Bundesliga restart could fall apart. Soccer is often likened to a religious experience; let’s make sure it doesn’t become a death cult.

Tynes: It was weird. I don’t believe we’re at the point where live sports are the most sensible undertaking, but the way the Bundesliga and German authorities handled it seemed well thought out. If I could see less of Erling Braut Haaland though, that would be cool. He looks like Boss Baby all grown up.

Describe the empty stadium experience.

Adeniran: There were no celebrations, no chants, not even in-game music. It was so weird, but I didn’t mind it. It felt more intimate, like I was watching an intrasquad scrimmage.

Clark: The Bundesliga has a fairly unique problem: Its crowds are typically so good and that passion is a serious part of the league’s appeal. Watching a big Borussia Dortmund game is a different experience because of their stadium’s energy. I was surprised by how different a silent stadium truly was. A crowd, in a big European game, is a sort of rhythm section, taking the action and moving it forward. Sometimes, that is with actual drums or just chants. That was sorely lacking this weekend. A lot of the yells—be it from a coach or player—would echo in the empty stadium. One trade-off I’m hoping for is that there are better field and bench microphones so we can hear things more clearly (this wouldn’t help in Bundesliga since I don’t speak German).

James: I couldn’t help but feel like a scientist peering through a microscope into a sparsely populated petri dish.

Peters: There’s less weight to every in-game action, if that makes sense—for instance, without the roar of Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, Raphaël Guerreiro’s finish to give his team a 4-0 lead on Schalke didn’t feel as decisive as it was. Or, better put: If no one hears the life being sucked out of Commerzbank-Arena when Mönchengladbach put two past Eintracht Frankfurt inside 15 minutes, is it still a knockout punch?

Samman: Watching games played in front of empty stands felt just like that—empty. There were some fun moments, like Dortmund celebrating the vacant Yellow Wall, but seeing these sports cathedrals vacant was haunting.

Sherman: It was more unsettling than I expected. Like I said, I’ve spent my quarantine mainlining far-flung sports to keep myself sane, from Taiwanese basketball to Belarusian soccer to ESPN-televised cornhole. And I’ve gotta say, it was particularly strange to watch these Bundesliga games played amid a silent backdrop. When the random sports I compulsively watched happened to be played in front of no audience it didn’t bother me. But I know that Bundesliga stands are meant to be filled with thousands of screaming fans unfurling building-sized tifos. An intense local derby shouldn’t be silent. If all we needed to know about a sporting event was who won and how they scored, we’d just read the box score afterwards, but part of the reason we watch sports is to feel as if we experienced some of the atmosphere of the game. As it turns out, there’s more to the games we love than 22 players and a ball.

Surrey: Brought me back to watching scrimmages the summer I interned for D.C. United, and, uh, not in a good way. Matches in a big league aren’t the same without the raucous atmosphere. Also, no disrespect to the commentators, but if empty stadiums are the new normal during the pandemic, I’d rather hear what’s happening on the pitch.

Tynes: It’s not something I’m not used to. During the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore years ago, an Orioles game at Camden Yards was played without fans in attendance. It was an eerie atmosphere, unusual, but it’s not to say it can’t work. I wouldn’t be against watching one or two games a year with the same atmosphere. It was intimate. It spotlighted the players and their communication more than the commotion stadiums can bring. I didn’t hate it.

What’s your biggest takeaway from this weekend’s games?

Adeniran: This is going to take some getting used to, for everyone. Especially the players, after not playing competitively for two months and not being able to hear any cheers or feedback from fans.

Clark: It was upsetting to me that FC Köln’s mascot, a live goat, was not allowed into the stadium. Let the goat watch the game. Aside from that, I was actually slightly disappointed in the broadcast, which made an empty stadium seem a little more empty. You cannot simply have a normal broadcast in an empty stadium; one of the reasons the UFC worked in an empty arena is that Jon Anik, Daniel Cormier, and Joe Rogan, the three guys calling the action, are so energetic. If there’s no energy from the crowd, there’s gotta be energy somewhere. Maybe that comes from some sort of fan cams. Maybe it comes from announcers hamming it up a bit. But it needs to be there. Also, let the goat watch the damn game.

James: We saw professional sports teams successfully play games this weekend. I expect all the pro leagues around the world to try to rush back to play before there’s time for any possible negative repercussions to be felt within the Bundesliga or Germany.

Peters: If you’re sitting there motionless on your couch, watching TV, reading this on your phone, which you probably are, get up and do your hip mobility routine. Yes, right now.

Samman: Even beyond the very real fear regarding the virus and its transmission, injuries are going to be a dominant narrative in the league’s restart. Minutes before making his first Bundesliga start (and minutes after the USMNT’s Instagram account celebrated his accomplishment) Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna—the 17-year-old wunderkid, and son of former USMNT captain Claudio Reyna—picked up an injury, and missed the Revierderby.

Asking players to perform at peak levels after doing what the rest of us have done for the past two months—nothing—isn’t a small request, and hopefully, they can make it through this final nine-game stretch without any significant physical setbacks.

Sherman: It may be physically impossible for Haaland to play in a soccer game without scoring a goal. Does that make him the best soccer player ever to live? It seems like it, right?

Surrey: While the safety measures are commendable, it doesn’t really matter if players are taking precautions in the lead-up to the match and avoiding high fives/hugs on the pitch. It’s not like you can social distance on a set piece.

Tynes: Schalke needs to socially distance themselves from competitive sports.

What lessons, if any, can professional leagues in the United States learn from Germany’s example?

Adeniran: The reason soccer came back in Germany so quickly is because not only was the country quick to respond to the coronavirus threat, its testing rates are some of the best in the world. Until the professional teams in America can meet that criteria for testing, it doesn’t make sense to restart the games.

Clark: It’s going to be a month or more until team sports resume in America. So long as they get ample training time and understand the safety and testing part of it, the most important thing to work out is how to broadcast an empty stadium game that doesn’t feel empty. It doesn’t have to be CGI fans, or piped-in crowd noise. The challenge the Bundesliga faces—and the one American sports can learn from—is how to make a “big game” atmosphere without the fans.

James: I fear that the greatest lessons to learn from the Bundesliga’s return might not be apparent for several weeks. There’s no truly “safe” way for players to do their jobs at the moment. All of the face masks and social distancing measures off the field don’t stop the players from sweating on each other while the clock is running. I’m also quite concerned about what American leagues can’t learn from the Bundesliga’s return. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for bringing back American sports leagues as safely as possible. Safety measures need to be custom-tailored not only to each league but each city and venue. There’s a danger of American leagues not being thoughtful enough about the specific safety needs of each sport in their eagerness to rush back to play.

Peters: Approach reopening with the same rigor as German authorities, which starts with appreciating potential human cost over a bottom line. Or at least under a giant microscope. Last week Christian Seifert, CEO of the Deutsche Fußball Liga, said this weekend’s games were about “earning the right” to do it again. However, there’s no reason to believe leagues that were forced to shut down, agitated to come back too early, and in the intervening time tried not to pay their lower-level workers would be so responsible.

Samman: If you can get the R0 below 1, as Germany did, you can start—with great patience, and with the benefit of widespread testing—reopening society. Short of that, attempting to replicate what Germany is trying to do is reckless.

Surrey: Unfortunately, not much of this Bundesliga restart can be translated in the United States until cases are under control. And that requires competent leadership, starting at the top. Bringing back American leagues now would be like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Tynes: The rush to bring soccer back in Germany was done mostly with financial considerations in mind. Although it might feel rushed, I appreciated that the conversation around resuming play was purely about the game. There were no mindless calls for unity. It was not used as a cudgel to push nationalistic ideals upon an audience yearning for the escape that sports can bring. It was just the game. No fodder. No misconceptions. The fear in the United States is that, at least most prominently, the president will use athletics—particularly football— as a salve to restore some assumed order and normalcy, and to use sports to bring back a sense of national pride. It’s an intellectual misunderstanding of the role sports plays in society. Fandom, itself, is a deranged psychosis we all take part in. Rushing back sports to appease the consumer, or chase glory, is selfish unless certain safety precautions are met. The last thing we need now is sports. Yet, it’ll be the first major form of entertainment we try to bring back.

We’re all Bundesliga fans now. Who’s your team?

Adeniran: Short answer: Bayern because who doesn’t like winning, and what’s better than winning the league seven years in a row (other than winning the Champions League against your rival)?

Long answer: Growing up, I had a close family friend who rooted for the German national team, so I rooted for them casually as well. During the 2010 World Cup, Miroslav Klose scored in the quarterfinals and did a front flip straight into a fist-pump celebration and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. He immediately became my favorite player and at the time, he was playing his club soccer at Bayern Munich. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Clark: I checked to see if there were any players from my hometown of Orlando in the Bundesliga (there aren’t), but during my search I saw that Bayer Leverkusen attended an Orlando Magic game while training in Orlando. I’ve seen enough. Die Werkself!

James: RB Leipzig. I’m a big New York Red Bulls fan. I used to root for Tyler Adams in Red Bull Arena and since Red Bull is very uncreative when it comes to naming their sports arenas, I’m once again rooting for Tyler Adams in Red Bull Arena. Also, any time I can support a club that angers old men who are afraid of change, I’ll gladly do so.

Peters: Dortmund. Been.

Samman: I know it’s a running bit for people just discovering the German league to tweet things like “LIFELONG KÖLN FAN, REPORTING FOR DUTY” but in all earnestness, I’ve loved watching Dortmund for more than a decade now. The kits are gorgeous, the fans are raucous, they’ve always played an energetic, exciting style, and they consistently challenge for glory. Plus, Jakub Blaszczykowski used to play there, and that guy owned in FIFA.

Sherman: I’m all in on Union Berlin, the underdog club that has finally completed a decades-long rise to the Bundesliga to become the first team from the former East Berlin to make Germany’s top flight. You can’t say I’m a bandwagon fan if it’s their first season!

Surrey: I was all about Borussia Dortmund—they have Eden Hazard’s non-thicc brother, Thorgan, great kits, lots of fun young players to watch—until I found out what Haaland was liking on his Twitter account. After an intense 48-hour love affair with the club, I’m a Union Berlin boy.

Tynes: This is now a Borussia Dortmund stan account. Just sell Haaland and we can ride out into the sunset. Shout-out to my sons Axel Witsel, Jadon Sancho, Manuel Akanji, and Raphaël Guerreiro.