Much has been said about professional soccer’s return in Europe behind closed doors. There have been enough games played in empty stadiums by now that most people have formed opinions about what has become the new normal in the pandemic, from the merits of artificial fan noise to hearing the sounds of players and coaches on the field to the strangeness of the crowd graphics that are akin to early-’90s video games. But what is it actually like to attend a professional sporting event when many may not be able to do so for the foreseeable future? On Saturday, I found out at Hertha Berlin’s final home game of the Bundesliga season, against Champions League–chasing Bayer Leverkusen at the Olympiastadion.
It seemed apt that my first ghost game would be played in this stadium. The ghosts of Germany’s past 100 years flow around the Olympiapark, where the stadium is located, so much so that the area seems to exist within its own microclimate; somehow, it’s cold inside the Olympiastadion, even in June. The vast limestone-clad structure, commissioned by Hitler for the 1936 Olympic Games and refitted with a roof for the 2006 FIFA Men’s World Cup, acts as a symbol of Germany’s rehabilitation from a nation under Nazi rule to one that became the envy of the West.
The eeriness of attending Saturday’s match began long before the stadium even came into view. I took the same route as I do on any match day: first a train, then I changed for an S-Bahn that wove its way through the center of Berlin, heading west. It’s here where I noticed the first sign that things weren’t normal: There were no fans. None. If you get on the S3 or the S9 trains at Alexanderplatz, or east at Ostbahnhof, or even farther east at Warschauer Strasse and even Ostkreuz on a match day, you’re greeted by clusters of Hertha fans wearing blue and white, their numbers swelling as you head farther west, but today have been replaced by Berliners wearing face masks. The only sight of Hertha’s home colors on the journey came in the form of one mask, worn by a man in a baseball cap sitting diagonally opposite to me on the train.
This seemed to trick my brain into thinking maybe today wouldn’t be so weird after all. But the man departed at a stop well before the Olympiastadion. I found my mind wandering back to the heady days of early March, when Hertha hosted Werder Bremen and drew 2-2, and wondered whether this man would have been headed to the Olympiastadion too under different circumstances.
Anyone who has attended a large event will know the feeling that kicks in at a certain point in the journey to get there. For a soccer match, the catalyst might be fans singing club songs on the way to a game; for a concert, it’s the groups of friends singing their favorite choruses from the band they’re about to see. The sensation kicks in when I travel to a stadium: the adrenalin of anticipating what you might witness that day, long before you catch a glimpse of where it all might happen. That feeling was absent on Saturday. No one was traveling to the stadium to watch Hertha play Leverkusen; no one seemed to be thinking about soccer at all. When the speaker announced my stop—“Nächste Station: Olympiastadion”—it caught me off guard. No adrenaline so far. Not yet.
I had to travel past the front of the stadium, passing its two iconic columns, Olympic rings suspended between them, to get my accreditation. It was so quiet that I made a mental note to come here more often for a walk. The grounds of the Olympiapark are really quite beautiful, the silence punctured only by the sound of my feet on the wet turf and the summer-afternoon rain falling on the trees that line the walkways. The last time I’ve seen it so quiet wasn’t on a match day, but on a stadium tour not long after I arrived in Berlin. It was supposed to be quiet then; today, it isn’t.
After picking up my accreditation and cutting through the Hertha training ground—open to the public on nontraining days—I arrived at the press entrance, where I was asked to sanitize my hands as a man in a coat and surgical face mask approached me and put a thermometer in my ear. He looked at it, a bit concerned, I felt, then turned to show me the reading of 36.6 C (97.8 F). “Ist das normal?!” I asked, fearing by his expression that I may be turned away due to an unhealthy reading. He nodded. Berliners aren’t famed for their gentle manner. I showed my pass to a stadium attendant and handed over my mandatory DFL health questionnaire. After a bag search, I was cheerfully ushered through with a “Viel spaß!”
The walk from the press entrance to the stadium is usually accompanied by songs from away fans making their way to the guest block, music filtering out from inside the stadium and various chants of “Ha-ho-he! Hertha BSC!” But on Saturday, it was deathly quiet. There was only the hum of a few television trucks and the distant voice of a solitary Hertha fan, standing outside the stadium gates, swinging a scarf around his head as he sang songs about his club while dancing around a few beer bottles placed on the ground.
Entering the press box was like walking into a doctor’s waiting room: I tried to make as little disturbance as possible, meeting the polite greetings from other reporters already in their seats. As the players finished their warm-ups, the prematch music was nowhere near as loud as it usually is—it didn’t need to be. Hertha’s traditional prematch entrance to the sound of a foghorn—a tribute to the steamship Hertha after which the club was named in 1892—was not to be heard today. In its place was Frank Zander’s “Nur Nach Hause,” Hertha’s club hymn set to the tune of the Sutherland Brothers Band’s “Sailing.” The Ostkurve section of the stadium was empty, with no swaying ultras, and no blue-and-white scarves that usually accompany the song’s rendition; it took on a very somber feeling and quickly faded out.
As for the game itself: There was a lot to play for, as Hertha looked to end a run of three straight defeats following a promising start under new coach Bruno Labbadia. Meanwhile, Leverkusen had Champions League qualification in their own hands, starting the day a point ahead of fifth-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach. The sound of the ball being struck and the shouts of the players and coaches echoed around the already cavernous Olympiastadion. There was something genuinely interesting in hearing the calls, switches in language, or referee Felix Brych walking over to Leverkusen coach Peter Bosz to tell him, “Next time, yellow card,” after the Dutchman complained once or twice too much.
The sound of the rain was the only constant apart from a commentator not used to being so well heard. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that it felt like we’ve all been sent to another planet to cover some intergalactic sporting event. It was so unlike the traditional stadium experience, and even more jarring than the sensation of watching it at home on TV—artificial fan noise, computer-generated crowds, or not.
I think the most striking thing from Saturday was the complete lack of joy on what should have been a day filled with it. This was a big game, Hertha winning 2-0 to cap a successful end to an absolute roller coaster of a season that had already seen three coaches come and go, ambitious goals before the season began, a potential threat of relegation during it, and Jürgen Klinsmann’s strange resignation after 10 weeks in charge, a departure that he explained live from his own Facebook page.
“Thank you for your support. Even from home,” read the banner held by the Hertha players after the match. The club executives clapped, the Leverkusen squad long gone with no away fans to thank, and I thought of that man in the blue-and-white striped face mask. I wondered whether he was watching at home, clapping like he would have done somewhere in this stadium had things not been the way they are. I hope the next time I’m here, he and thousands of other Herthaner are too. Because, while it may be OK for us watching at home, football without fans really is nothing at all.