The rise of the global pandemic has seen the evolution of football as we know it. With the fear of the spread of the disease amidst players and staff alike, many top-flight football leagues in Europe as well as across the globe were indefinitely suspended. Meanwhile, the UEFA Champions League, as well as the Euros, had to be postponed to cater to the health of the players, support staff and fans alike.
However, although the top leagues of countries like Belarus and Nicaragua had never stopped, the Bundesliga was the first elite football league to begin operations. The German top-flight returned to normalcy after the league was suspended mid-March, a few weeks after its counterparts in England, Spain and Italy had already been suspended. However, with drastic changes on all fronts to ensure the safeguarding of the players' health, can football still feel the same?
Empty stands, no fans, and sound-projected fan cheers
Fans have been an integral part of the beautiful game forever. The incentive to perform in front of empty stands understandably reduces with no fans to watch the games, but the league officials have allowed for other measures to provide a similar experience.
Fans of Borussia Monchengladbach have set up cutouts of themselves in the different seating areas of Borussia-Park, their official football stadium. 13,000 such cardboard fans were set up, having been paid by the fans themselves in order to recreate an atmosphere similar to the approximately 54,000 fans that attend the club’s match-day games. The Gladbach fans have named this initiative ‘Stay at home. Be in the stands’, with the contributions being donated to charities which raise funds for the pandemic.
“The campaign organisers are regularly overrun with orders. “We can hardly keep up with trying to install them all,” Gladbach fan representative Thomas Weinmann was quoted as saying by the Bundesliga website. “But we’re obviously delighted with the overwhelming support it’s received.”
Meanwhile, Borussia Dortmund celebrated their derby victory over Schalke in front of empty stands of their famous South Bank stand of the Signal Iduna Park, which is popularly known as the ‘Yellow Wall’ and can hold almost 25,000 fans. In their last league game, an away match against Wolfsburg, the Volkswagen Arena would echo the shouts and screams of the fans, but they were just projecting voices through speakers, to give the players a fan-like experience.
New and improved celebrations
While the resumption of the league has seen a flurry of goals, fans who stayed at home got a glimpse of the new celebrations which were going to be the norm for the foreseeable future.
Social distancing was the new thing while celebrating goals, with many strikes being celebrated with elbow bumps instead of the usual hugs. Another example of this new norm was seen when Erling Haaland and Achraf Hakimi combined to score and the two young prodigies danced with each other while keeping the social distancing rule in mind.
New substitute rules with socially distant benches
In light of the growing pandemic, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) came up with a new rule allowing the use of five substitutes during the matches to help the players acclimatise to the break in play of more than a month. However, these rules had many conditions as well, such as only two substitutes at a time. The teams will only be allowed three opportunities to make these substitutions, including at half-time.
Another new phenomenon which was expected to be in place was the social distancing between the substitutes and coaches on the benches. Substitutes were expected to wear masks and sit at a distance from each other, maintaining social distancing rules. In a few cases, the players were also seated in the front rows of the empty stands. Only head coaches were allowed to stay on the sidelines without a mask so they could shout instructions to their players. Substituted players were handed a mask when they were brought off the field as well.
With a few dozen people on the sidelines, fans of the beautiful game who were watching the match from home could hear the instructions and chants of the players and head coaches alike, another new phenomenon experienced by the fans.
Regular temperature checks and disinfected balls
All players and club support staff, as well as the media personnel and stadium staff members, had to get their temperatures checked in order to attend the matches. While fans were banned from matches, there was strict police patrolling to ensure that crowds would not gather at the stadiums, which surprisingly did not take place. A total of almost 350 people were allowed on the ground – including players, coaches, ball boys, security personnel, medics, and media.
The teams arrived in different buses to make sure that the players were quite aloof from each other while travelling to the games. The players and staff members were expected to quarantine in their team hotels while being regularly tested to ensure the safety of everyone while the footballs were disinfected by ball boys before the game as well as during half-time.
With a majority of football leagues scheduled to restart over the next month or so across England, Italy and Spain, fans will soon see the aforementioned pointers take over the beautiful game, at least till the looming threat of the pandemic has been completely nullified worldwide. Till then, no one can say for sure when the sport will return to normalcy or when fans can experience the thrill of watching their favourite clubs playing from the stadiums like they used to.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Odd Andersen