The play unfolded with precision, like so many of Borussia Dortmund’s goals have this season. A nudge with the side of a foot sent the ball from the middle of the field down the right wing. A perfectly placed cross put it, on a single hop, into the path of Erling Haaland, as he approached the penalty area on a sprint. And then Haaland, a 19-year-old Norwegian striker who seems to be on the cusp of becoming world soccer’s next great scorer, redirected it into the corner of the net with a left-footed flick.
Haaland raised a finger and wheeled off toward the corner flag. Two of his teammates chased after him. Goals are relatively uncommon in soccer — most games have fewer than three — and every one of them is an occasion for players to converge and celebrate.
“The first instinct when you score,” says Gio Reyna, another Dortmund teammate, “is to give a hug to the player who gave you the pass.”
But if the goal was routine for Dortmund this season, the circumstances on that third Saturday in May decidedly were not. The looming threat of the coronavirus had shut down the Bundesliga, the top level of German soccer, for more than two months, and the season had just resumed under a strict protocol that forbade things like hugs. Haaland and his two teammates stood a few feet away from each other and performed a subdued dance.
It was the first goal in the Bundesliga since March 11, a few days before Germany began closing down the country. By the next weekend, games of all kinds had stopped, in America and across Europe. One of the many disruptions of this Covid-19 spring has been the disappearance of organized professional sports. (There have been exceptions: A couple of Asian baseball leagues began play in April, for example, and soccer games have been held, to near universal disapproval, in Belarus.) In several countries, seasons have been canceled entirely and champions crowned. Other leagues remain in suspended animation. The Premier League, in England, recently announced that its games would start being played again on June 17. The N.B.A. and N.H.L. have released provisional plans to resume in July, though details remain sketchy. Major League Baseball still hopes to work out a way to restart spring training if players and owners can stop squabbling over terms. The N.F.L. looks toward the fall with uncertainty. So far, among the world’s major sports leagues, only the Bundesliga has managed a successful return.
The game in Dortmund that Saturday afternoon was, with four others going on simultaneously across Germany, the first since the shutdown. The atmosphere felt surreal. Dortmund attracts more fans — 81,154 of them on average, this season — than any other club in Europe. But because large gatherings have been banned in Germany until October, only a few journalists and club executives were allowed in the stands. Players on the sidelines sat several feet apart and wore protective masks.
Dortmund was playing its rival, Schalke 04, from nearby Gelsenkirchen. Yet the predominant emotion seemed to be relief that the protocol that had put in place seemed to be working, though any coronavirus infections wouldn’t be evident for several days. Outside Germany, teams were hoping it could serve as something of a template. “We’re going to be watching with great attention, and hopefully learning from their experience,” Julien BriseBois, the general manager of the N.H.L.’s Tampa Bay Lightning, told me.
The lessons learned might even stretch beyond sports. Carsten Cramer, Dortmund’s managing director, is convinced that much of the detailed protocol, which originally extended to what body part should be used to push elevator buttons (elbow) and how players should dry their hands after washing them at home (paper towels), is applicable to other diversions. “A door-opener back to normal life,” he calls it. The idea that our summer experiences at restaurants and movie theaters might somehow depend on the continued good behavior of a few hundred soccer players in Germany seems tenuous. But in Europe, at least, the return of televised soccer was received as a significant step. “A piece of history,” the Independent newspaper in Britain called the Bundesliga games. And whether or not specifics of its protocols are ultimately adopted by other leagues, the Bundesliga seems to be showing that sports can continue during a global pandemic without disastrous effects.
Dortmund added three more goals after Haaland’s and won easily, 4-0. The club, which is one of Germany’s best and regularly plays in Europe’s Champions League, showed no effects of having gone nine weeks without competition. In fact, it probably hadn’t played so well since the season started back in August. It was a performance of such exuberance that any pregame debate about whether players would be able to perform without spectators was over by halftime. Still, the game couldn’t help but feel muted. “You shoot, you score, you make a great pass,” Lucien Favre, Dortmund’s manager, said after the game. “And nothing happens.”
Fans had been warned by the clubs not to gather near the stadiums during or after games. If they did, the ramifications could include shutting the league back down. When Sebastian Kehl, Dortmund’s player liaison, emerged from the parking lot, he didn’t see a single person. Normally, of course, the bars around the stadium would have been packed.
“This time there was nobody,” Kehl said. “There was nobody crying, there was nobody singing. Nobody.”
President Franklin Roosevelt famously urged baseball’s major leagues to continue playing during World War II as a national diversion. Soccer also continued in Germany during the war, for much the same reason. Baseball and the N.F.L. resumed a week after the Sept. 11 attacks. That’s probably why this prolonged period without games feels so strange to so many. It’s easy to imagine that, amid the pandemic, in our locked-down state, televised games could offer fans a sense of the routine, a connection to normal life — and perhaps even an incentive to stay home and watch.
Sports are also big business. The boost to the economy in Germany, where professional soccer contributes 56,000 jobs and indirectly touches hundreds of thousands more, was one of the arguments the Bundesliga made — to both the German government and the public — for its return. Mostly, though, the Bundesliga told officials that it if it didn’t finish the season, it would essentially cease to exist. Alone among the major sports leagues globally, the Bundesliga’s ownership rules limit the involvement of investors like oil billionaires and oligarchs that have bought up sports teams elsewhere and, presumably, are better able to weather economic downturns. Instead, a majority of the voting shares of each club must be held by members, who tend to be fans of ordinary means.
The league is still owed the final installment for its domestic television rights, estimated at $320 million — money it won’t receive unless the season is completed. Coupled with the loss of ticket revenues, that shortfall would push many clubs into insolvency. “If we don’t come back soon, when we do, the Bundesliga will look totally different,” Fredi Bobic, who runs Eintracht Frankfurt’s soccer operations, told me in April. “And nobody wants to see a league in which half the clubs are gone.”
It helped the league’s case that Germany’s response to the pandemic had been the most successful in Europe. Testing started early and remained accessible. No significant shortages were reported of hospital beds, ventilators or other emergency equipment. And a definitive nationwide strategy, coupled with widespread trust in political leaders during an emergency, meant that the restrictions put into place were almost universally followed. “Germans are disciplined,” Cramer says. “If they know it will help if they wear a mask, they don’t complain. They wear the mask.” When Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, urged people to isolate themselves, everyone hunkered down at home.
That was the middle of March, when the country had recorded only three deaths from Covid-19. Initially, clubs told their players that games had been suspended until the first weekend in April. But as the weeks passed, their return remained uncertain. Merkel, an avid soccer fan who understood the parlous state of the league, is also a trained scientist. When the Bundesliga submitted a potential plan to officials for how it might eventually resume play, she took no action until she could gauge how infection rates were trending.
Starting April 30, with state and local authorities having agreed to allow teams to begin practice sessions without formal distancing guidelines, players and staff were required to submit to twice-weekly tests. The first testing was done that week. There were 10 positives across the Bundesliga’s two divisions. F.C. Köln, which reported three of those, announced that the team would proactively quarantine in a hotel. There, the manager, Markus Gisdol, held meetings in the grand ballroom, his players scattered over an area meant for several hundred revelers. “I should buy a megaphone,” he told me.
Borussia Dortmund isn’t wealthy enough to outbid soccer’s biggest clubs — Real Madrid and Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, the upper end of England’s Premier League — for the best players. Instead, it has adopted a strategy of finding young talent abroad and giving it an opportunity to actually play. Christian Pulisic, an American who is now at Chelsea, came to Dortmund when he was 17 in 2016. He matured into a world-class winger who has already captained the U.S. men’s national team. At 19, Haaland has been scoring goals in the Bundesliga at an implausible rate since he joined Dortmund from Red Bull Salzburg in Austria in January: 10 of them in his first 11 games.
Reyna, 17, may be the next to emerge at the club. Born to American parents in England, where his father, Claudio, was playing in the Premier League, he grew up in Bedford, N.Y. Last summer, he moved to Dortmund, where he started playing with the club’s under-19 team. He roomed with the other prospects in a dormitory. Since being promoted to the senior team in January, his progress has been startling. He recorded an assist in a Champions League game and appeared as a substitute eight times in the Bundesliga before the shutdown. He also moved into a modern duplex in a four-story building on an artificial lake, within walking distance of several other players. It was the first time he ever lived on his own. He had only been there a few weeks when Merkel advised everyone to stay inside.
He still barely knew his teammates, or anyone else in Dortmund. The lockdown left him alone with his video games, mostly FIFA and Fortnite, which he played online with friends back home. He couldn’t drive, so the club sent snacks to him each week — granola bars and almond milk, he says — and some dinners prepared by a chef. But his daily cooking was limited to what his mother could choreograph from Bedford. At one point, his teammate Manuel Akanji invited him to a socially distanced barbecue for players in the neighborhood. By Friday, Reyna was counting the hours until he could show up. But Reyna had misremembered the details: The barbecue was Saturday. Reyna looked so forlorn on the doorstep that Akanji invited him to stay for dinner. “It saved me,” Reyna says. “I’d literally run out of food.”
Once the club was allowed to resume training in pairs, Dortmund’s players would spread out, kicking the ball back and forth so nobody needed to get close. Even after teams started working out in groups of six, it didn’t feel much like normal practice. “It stinks,” Reyna told me on the phone at the time. “We’re not allowed to compete yet. We’re not allowed to touch each other. We’re not allowed to fight for the ball.”
Each morning, Reyna would walk to Akanji’s house and ride with him to the facility. Or he would ride with Haaland. The highly regarded English forward Jadon Sancho, who was recovering from an injury, also lives nearby. They had nowhere else to go. All they could do was hang out with each other, in twos and threes, wearing masks when occasions demanded. If he hadn’t left to play professional soccer, Reyna would be finishing his junior year at Greenwich Country Day School. Instead, he found himself spending intimate hours, day after day, with some of the best soccer players in the world. Without the rehashing of games and the daily team gossip to dominate the conversations, he says, “we had time to figure each other out.”
The idea of making new friends during a pandemic seems incongruous, but Reyna believes the last few weeks may prove to be his making as a player. “I gained a lot of confidence in the way they see me,” he says. “Because of that, I feel like I’m ready to contribute to the team right now. It’s strange, when you think about it,” he adds about the quarantine, “but that’s the effect it had.”
In Germany, where fans take pride in their importance to the teams they support, many wondered whether soccer in empty stadiums — referred to as Geisterspiele, or “ghost games” — should be considered soccer at all. The players seemed resigned to the idea. “We will do it now without fans,” Mats Hummels, a Dortmund central defender, told me, “so that we can play again with the fans as soon as possible.”
But just when the government seemed ready to let the Bundesliga set a return date, its plan nearly unraveled. On May 4, a player for Hertha Berlin, Salomon Kalou, posted a video on Facebook. It showed him shaking hands with someone from the team’s staff, intruding on a teammate’s testing procedure and generally disregarding the protocol that the Bundesliga was selling the government. “We were caught by surprise,” Paul Keuter, one of four management board members at the club, told me. “We could never have imagined anything like that happening. There were a lot of people who had worked their asses off for weeks, and that kind of destroyed it. We all thought, This is really the worst thing that could happen.”
Kalou’s actions exposed the precariousness of the entire concept of restarting the season. They echoed the behavior of Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz player who made a point of touching every microphone, digital recorder and any other surface he could during a news conference in March to underscore his lack of concern about the coronavirus — and soon tested positive for it, effectively causing the N.B.A. to shut down. “If everybody is responsible enough to be reasonable, there will not be a problem,” the veteran Eintracht goalkeeper Kevin Trapp had told me, before Kalou’s transgressions. “But if even one person is not reasonable, then we have a problem.” Kalou, a 34-year-old who won both the Champions League and Premier League while at Chelsea, had emerged as exactly that unreasonable person. Hertha acted swiftly, suspending Kalou and barring him from training with the team. The rest of the Bundesliga held its breath. The number of new Covid-19 cases in Germany had fallen since the previous week, which boded well for the government’s decision. Still, club executives worried that the outrage generated by Kalou’s video would be impossible to ignore.
They were right to fret. That Wednesday, a government committee met to discuss the league’s proposal. According to Fredi Bobic, at Eintracht, what had seemed highly likely before the video became less so. “It was a 50-50 thing up until the end,” he said. Merkel made her announcement that afternoon. The Bundesliga would be allowed to play, but first the entire league had to be confined to hotels for a week, only leaving for practices. That way, any newly infected players or staff members could be identified and isolated.
Dortmund waited out its quarantine at L’Arrivée Hotel and Spa, on the city’s southern edge. From the balconies of their rooms, the players overlooked the Niederhofer Holz, densely wooded with beech and oak. The hotel is a short drive from both Signal Iduna Park and the training facility. To Reyna, though, it felt like the wilderness. “Like we were way out in the woods somewhere,” he says.
For a full week, from Saturday to Saturday, the team remained at the hotel. There were no other guests and no visitors. Every morning, players and coaches took buses to training; afterward, they came back. Meals prepared by team cooks were served buffet-style in the empty restaurant, but players had to wait until the person in front of them was well down the line before proceeding. They sat at opposite ends of square tables and ate as quickly as possible. Then they went back to their rooms.
To further decrease the chances of infection, the rooms were all but left alone. Housekeeping service was limited to once during the week, while the team was holding a training session at the stadium on Wednesday. Even without pizza boxes or beer cans, some of the rooms started to take on the feel of a college dorm. When Akanji stuck his head into Reyna’s room that morning, he gasped. “You can tell you aren’t married,” he said.
For the first time in more than two months, players had something specific to train for. “You train hard, and as your reward, you get to go out and play these big games in front of a big crowd,” Hummels told me from the hotel. “That has been completely gone all these weeks.” A 31-year-old veteran of more than a decade in German soccer, Hummels said he never believed that games would be played before the summer. “But now we have a game ahead of us,” he said. “With a date and an opponent.” And it wasn’t just any game. Dortmund and Schalke are the two biggest clubs in the Ruhr Valley. Because they are so close to each other, games between them have the intensity of a Big 10 rivalry. In addition, Dortmund still had a chance to win the league. The team was four points behind the perennial champion, Bayern Munich, which has won each of the last seven seasons.
That gave the Bundesliga a marquee matchup on its first week back. To U.S. news outlets, the fact that Dortmund’s Reyna and Schalke’s Weston McKennie are Americans provided an additional hook. Henderson Hewes, a producer for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” contacted Dortmund and requested a video call with Reyna and highlights that could be used to promote the interview. On the day before the Dortmund-Schalke game, the show ran a short segment. The following morning, just before game time on the East Coast, another segment aired. “I think the interest for people here is seeing how what happens in Germany affects our leagues,” Hewes told me.
Under other circumstances, Hewes admitted, Dortmund-Schalke would have passed unnoticed. “If there were N.B.A. playoffs, the golf majors, the Kentucky Derby, we would never be doing this,” he said.
Even empty, Dortmund’s steep-sided Signal Iduna Park is one of the world’s most imposing sports venues. When it’s full of fans wearing the club’s colors, yellow and black, the effect can inspire awe. While at Dortmund, Jürgen Klopp, who now manages Liverpool, last season’s Champions League winners, estimated that the home crowd was worth a goal a game to the home team, and probably more than that. The Yellow Wall at the stadium’s south end, where 25,000 loyalists stand and chant and wave flags for the entire game, is a major part of the team’s brand. The idea of a game there without fans seemed especially incongruous.
Some clubs had plans to try to mitigate the strangeness. Borussia Mönchengladbach solicited photos from its fans and used them to produce more than 12,000 cardboard cutouts that were propped up in the stands. Other clubs chose to pipe in crowd noises, cheers and whistles and even some of those singsong chants that are integral to the experience of watching a soccer game. Knowing that its fan groups were already criticizing the artificial nature of games played in vacant stadiums, Dortmund decided to present its games unadorned, in what Cramer calls the sport’s original form. The first games ever were played without spectators, he noted. “And if I play with my kids, even the neighbors aren’t interested to watch,” he told me a few days before the game. “So we just play for ourselves. The game is the focus.”
In the two weeks of full training after the lockdown ended, Reyna’s performance made a leap. “He’s comfortable, you can see it,” Hummels told me. “He’s on a different level now.” With Sancho still ailing, Favre put him in the lineup for what would be his first start. But during a warm-up drill, he stepped awkwardly reaching for a ball. His foot rolled over it, pulling something in his leg. “I felt it right away,” he says. In the training room, he decided that the risk of getting badly hurt wasn’t worth taking. What was important, he told me later, was that Favre had thought enough of him to put him in the lineup, even if he hadn’t been able to play.
After leaving the training room, Reyna showered. Then he watched on the sideline, wearing a mask. He could hear the sounds of the game, as though it was a closed scrimmage — every shout, every whistle. “It was strange,” he said. Like everyone else at the stadium that day, he would have the experience forever etched in his memory: a complicated mix of relief that the season had resumed, disappointment that he couldn’t play and excitement and unease about what the coming weeks might bring.
He came on as a substitute late in the next game, against VfL Wolfsburg the following Saturday, which Dortmund won, 2-0. He did the same in a 1-0 loss against Bayern Munich on the next Tuesday, the game that all but ended Dortmund’s hopes for a title. And after entering in the 80th minute of last Sunday’s game, a 6-1 rout at S.C. Paderborn 07, Reyna nearly scored his first Bundesliga goal on a hard shot from the right side that was deflected by the fingertips of the sprawling goalkeeper. In that game, too, Sancho scored three goals and, after the first one, removed his shirt to reveal a message in support of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of the police in Minneapolis had sparked widespread protests. The afternoon before, Schalke’s McKennie wore an armband that read “Justice for George.” The social activism had, at least temporarily, become the Bundesliga’s biggest news story and revealed how quickly playing games in a pandemic came to seem normal. “I think everybody feels safe,” he said.
As of this week, the Bundesliga has successfully concluded nearly half the games that remained on its schedule when it shut down in March. The idea of keeping athletes isolated from most everyone else so they can compete without fear of infection, which had been mocked by fans, journalists and a notable number of the athletes themselves during the shutdown, now appears to be accepted as a best practice. So are the empty stadiums, which have proven to be no impediment to exciting games played at the highest level. That has helped other leagues see the path to resuming their own schedules, Julien BriseBois, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, now believes. On May 23, the N.B.A. revealed plans to sequester its players in Orlando, Fla., and hold several weeks of playoffs starting in July, though some teams are said to be unsure about their participation. The N.H.L. is finalizing the same kind of tournament in two cities to be determined. English, Spanish and Italian soccer leagues all have announced return dates for the next three weeks.
In the meantime, with nothing else comparable to watch, TV audiences have repaid Bundesliga teams with a level of global attention that the league has not achieved despite years of trying. In America, the audience for Dortmund-Schalke on the Fox channel FS1 was 564 percent higher than the last Bundesliga game the cable channel showed before the shutdown, and nearly six times the league’s U.S. average. In Germany, the 37.7 market share for the time period easily eclipsed the Bundesliga’s previous record. Viewership figures aren’t yet available from all of the roughly 200 countries where it was broadcast, but Dortmund-Schalke is almost certain to end up as the most-watched German match ever.
When the whistle blew to end the game, it could be heard throughout the stadium. The Dortmund players wandered around aimlessly for a few moments, as if waiting to be told what to do next. And then, spontaneously, most of them headed to the south end of the field. “It just kind of happened,” Reyna told me the next day. “We just did it. It was funny. It was nice.”
There, in front of the Yellow Wall, they sent a greeting to their fans. They stood at the edge of the grass, looked up at the rows of empty terraces and waved their arms over and over at all the supporters who weren’t there.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor for the magazine. He last wrote about Liverpool and analytics.
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