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Football is back, but not as we know it

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The Bundesliga in Germany restarted on May 16th after a 9-week break during the coronavirus outbreak, and the experience has been different to say the least. Without fans, and with strange social distancing being observed (or not) between players, football is definitely back, but just not as we know it.

Some fans and government officials stressed it was a bad idea, that you couldn’t possibly maintain good hygiene in physical sports. The experience would be soulless without the fans they claimed. Yet for broadcasters, it’s been a major success.

The absence of sport during the global Covid-19 pandemic managed to create a real hunger for top level sport – football in particular – in its absence. So when Dortmund faced Schalke in the Revierderby on May 16th, interest was sky high.

So high in fact, that television viewing figures soared for the coverage. Sky Deutschland reported figures of five million viewers across its channels – not bad considering the negative reaction to the return in some quarters.

Across Europe, the top divisions have been taking notes, and fans watching on curiously. In the UK, BT Sport has been airing the Bundesliga coverage, with viewing figures here just as impressive. Dortmund-Schalke reached 1.4million viewers across platforms, with average viewing figures matching some Premier League matches.

For fans, the hunger for football’s return is most definitely there.

What can English Football expect?

The big fear in Germany was that close contact was impossible to avoid in competitive football, and this has been the case. In the heat of a moment of celebration, players have found it difficult to avoid hugging, high-fiving or back slapping. This has rightly raised fears of an increase in infections between players.

In reality, the rate of infection appears to be very low, with only Dynamo Dresden players so far suffering from infection and quarantined. Even so, players have been told to stick to the social distancing protocol as much as possible when the ball isn’t in play. As yet, not many “socially-distanced” celebrations have happened, and when they do, it’s downright odd.

The quality of football doesn’t seem to have been affected, to the delight of fans watching at home. However the atmosphere inside stadiums is understandably surreal. Only around 300 people have been allowed in, including media, and ground staff, adding to a training ground feel.

Home advantage seems to have been removed too. Without fans, the results have been more even. Players have attempted more flicks and stepovers than usual, in an environment where there is less pressure. The influence of the bench has increased significantly, with instructions being heard in the absence of crowds.

The experience for television viewers is a strange one of course, with much of the fanfare and noise associated with football gone. But that focus has been on the football.

When the Premier League returns, it will have watched the Bundesliga closely and hopefully learned what has and hasn’t been a success. Naturally, there’s a lot of criticism around the risk to the players, and rightly so.

The game of football is very much back, but Premier League fans will now know it will be nothing like as we know it. The moral and ethical rights and wrongs will be debated but for fans of football, there’s something at least to be excited about again.

“It’s like running a marathon, 20 odd miles, stopping for two months and then sprinting the last bit and going: “Ah, that was a good time that.””

Watford’s Troy Deeney has been an outspoken critic of the Premier League resuming.

“Football is meaningless — but it is magnificently meaningless. It has the power to lighten lives; why not see if we can use that power again?”

Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish on the positive power of football returning.

What are your thoughts on the return of football? Have your say in the comments!

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© Mike Barclay at The Football Diary 2020