Dhruvan Nair, Undergraduate 2021
The significance of 16th May 2020 would not be forgotten easily by football fanatics as well as sports fans across the world as it saw the return of Bundesliga, the German First Division. It became the first of Europe’s top flight leagues to restart since being called off due to the Coronavirus in March. Since the Europa League clash between the German side Wolfsburg and the Ukrainian outfit, Shakhtar Donetsk on March 13th, not a single European fixture was held as nation-wide lockdown measures were implemented across Europe and the rest of the planet. With players being sent into isolation and various clubs facing tough financial calls to be taken, the beautiful game seemed to have been lost. However, the return of the Bundesliga seems to suggest that there is still hope for the millions of ardent football fans around the world, that their game simply cannot be taken away from them.
After obtaining the green light from the German government, the DFL (German Football League) decided to restart the first and second tier (2. Bundesliga) leagues on 16th and 17th May. A week prior to the restart, the same body conducted 1,724 tests on players, staff members and all other officials out of which 10 tested positive for Covid-19, who were to be treated and put in isolation for two weeks. Apart from this initial test, all Bundesliga clubs continued to have regular tests conducted right up till the latest one being conducted right on the Matchday. But the precautionary measures did not end here. Alongside real-world changes came changes to the game itself. New rules were set up to ensure that government regulations were followed while conducting the matches. These included having five substitutes instead of the usual three which would help in easing players back to the game after the long layover, the removal of handshakes before the kick-off to reduce physical contact, half-time kit changes to ensure good hygiene and prevent any infections and finally, holding all games behind closed doors to prevent fans from gathering in large numbers. Equipped with these and several new safety measures and regulations, the Bundesliga signalled the return of European football in Matchday 26, instantly picking up from where it had left off.
The first set of games included RB Leipzig taking on Freiburg and then the big one, the ‘Revierderby’ with FC Schalke travelling to the Westfalenstadion, to face Borussia Dortmund. Playing at Dortmund is a challenge for any team as the home side’s supporters, the infamous ‘Yellow Wall’ is known for creating an electric atmosphere. However, with the new rules, the truth is that there is no home advantage anymore. There were more prominent changes in the stadium, especially on the touchline. The substitutes bench had a different arrangement now where each player was seated with a minimum distance of three feet between the seats. Once substituted off, the player was now provided with a mask along with the standard water bottle as custom. However, despite the numerous new guidelines and changes, there was no change brought to the intensity of the contest. The derby finished with Dortmund emerging 4-0 victors after a resounding performance, with goals from Thorgan Hazard, Raphael Guerreiro and teenage sensation Erling Haaland. The victory brought Dortmund to within a point behind defending champions and current league leaders, Bayern Munich. Despite the result, Bayern were able re-establish their four-point lead at the top of the table with a 2-0 victory over Union Berlin, with target man Robert Lewandowski and Benjamin Pavard getting on the scoresheet. By scoring from the spot against Berlin, Lewandowski took his tally of 25 goals in 26 games, increasing his lead for the Golden Boot but with RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner not too far behind on 21 goals. At the end of Matchday 26, Bayern remained at the top of the table with 58 points with Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach, RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen in pursuit, with each separated by just 4 points.
Dortmund Players Celebrated Their Victory in Front of the Empty Stands
The return of the Bundesliga will play a vital role in bringing back normalcy to sports as well as to daily lives of large populations. This comeback has accelerated the procedures to resume the respective top flight leagues in England, Spain and Italy. In stark contrast to the situation a few months back, when sports fanatics across the world were saddened by the cancellation of major sporting tournaments such as Euro 2020, Wimbledon, the Indian Premier League etc., there is now a re-emergence of belief and hope across regions that sport too will adapt to suit a society slowly recovering from a global pandemic.