There were no fans, there was no hugging, there were no mascots, there were no handshakes — but there was football. Actual, real-life top-flight football.
The Bundesliga got back in action on Saturday after an enforced hiatus for football since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Five games kicked off the resumption of the battle to the Bundesliga title in Germany, and the fight to see who will fend off relegation.
The main attraction was the Ruhr Derby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 — a traditional German clash played in unprecedented circumstances.
The famous Yellow Wall was empty, substitutes wore masks on the bench, and the goal celebrations were eerily subdued.
Such is the reality of life in football now thanks to COVID-19 — hey at least the coaches were allowed to remove their masks to holler instructions to their players.
On the televisions around the globe, where millions of fans were getting a long overdue fix of live, competitive football, broadcasters piped in pre-recorded fan chants, singing and reactions based on the play.
This new environment will take some getting used to, but it looks like it is here to stay for a pretty long time to come as more and more top European Leagues follow their German counterparts and resume hostilities on the pitch in the coming weeks and months.
The majority of fans in Germany did not want the league to restart, preferring an abandonment of the season and starting afresh come August, but money talks and the suits that run the clubs got their way, with several teams, including Schalke, already on the brink financially.
After the prematch music echoed around Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, a ping on the referee’s whistle got elite football back under way, even if the opening exchanges were more like a training exercise as the home side passed the ball around in front of around 200 people in the 80,000 capacity stadium (211 if you include the onlooking Schalke players).
The players soon settled into their surreal surroundings however, and a meaty challenge or two reminded those involved that this was still a derby and there was plenty at stake — not only the bragging rights. Dortmund had only won one of the last eight meetings with Schalke, but were also desperate for the three points as they are still locked in a title fight with defending champions Bayern Munich.
Deservedly, Dortmund got the opening goal of the rebooted Bundesliga when Thorgan Hazard — brother of Real Madrid’s Eden — fired in a low cross and record-breaking goal machine Erling Braut Haaland showed he has lost none of his scoring instincts by losing his marker and tapping home.
Beneath the Tannoy music, the players’ echoing cheers sounded like they came from an indoor swimming pool rather than a football stadium.
Haaland now has 13 goals in his past 12 games in all competitions for Dortmund, matching Klaus Matischek record for Werder Bremen that dates back to 1965.
Schalke clearly were still rusty from their unwanted break and some farcical play at the back allowed Raphael Guerreiro to make it 2-0 to Dortmund. Goalkeeper Markus Schubert lost possession from a danger-free clearance and Julian Brandt found Guerreiro, who fired past the red-faced keeper.
After the break it was more of the same as Dortmund looked to kill off the game and close the gap on Bayern to one point, ahead of the league leaders’ clash with Union Berlin on Sunday.
Hazard duly delivered three minutes after when Julian Brandt’s lovely delivery fell right at his feet and he sent the ball home from 18 yards, with Schubert looking at fault once again.
Bayern will definitely be taking notice as Dortmund are certainly up for a title fight. Guerreiro’s exquisite exchange with Haaland resulted in their fourth of the day as Schalke looked like they wished the lockdown was still in place and they were safely at home.
Last year, Dortmund blew a 4-0 advantage in this fixture, but there was no chance of a repeat this time around and the men in yellow gave the globe an entertaining example of what we have all been missing for the past two months.
Dortmund 4 Schalke 0
Augsburg 1 Wolfsburg 2
Dusseldorf 0 Paderborn 0
RB Leipzig 1 Freiburg 1
Hoffenheim 0 Hertha Berlin 3