In Germany, football returned with games in empty arenas, forcing a nation of fans to cheer their clubs from afar. Can we learn to love this new reality, at least for a while?
As soon as you leave Dortmund's central station, you see the black and yellow. Decked out in the team's luminous colors, Borussia Dortmund's club shop draws the eye from across the square.
In the city centre, the smiling faces of Dortmund seem to beam out from every other billboard. In the suburbs, flags and banners hang from streetlights throughout the year. There are people wearing scarves and people wearing hats and people wearing jerseys, whether it is match day or not, binding everything together in black and yellow.
After a while, it starts to feel less like Dortmund is a city that happens to be home to a football team and more that it is a football team that has somehow generated a city around it.
Football is a game, of course. But it is also a sport, which is what a game becomes when enough people invest in it, financially or emotionally. And it is a business, too, which is how sport metastasizes when the emotional investment generates a return on the financial. But it is also — maybe it is mostly — a form of identity, a sense of belonging.
That is true everywhere, but it is in places like Dortmund where it most easily drifts into focus: a city given over to a team, where in the hours before a game everyone seems to be talking of the same subject, walking in the same direction, dreaming of the same outcome.
Football did not return to Dortmund, and to the rest of Germany's Bundesliga, this weekend. Rather, a new form of it — a vision of its unwanted, unavoidable short-term future — made its debut: acoustic, pared back, stripped of the spectacle that lends it power. The streets were quiet. The stadiums, guarded by the police and ringed by steel, were empty.
Many of the bars and restaurants permitted to open chose to remain closed, mindful of the virus' risks, fearful of the consequences of even small gatherings. Many of the fans who might have packed them, once upon a time, had tuned out. A poll, by the German television network ZDF, had found that 62% of fans would have preferred to cancel the season entirely than play out a pale imitation in the shadow of a pandemic.
There was enough interest, though, for Sky Germany's coverage of the first round of games — headlined by Dortmund's derby with its fierce rival, Schalke — in this bleak new world to draw in 6 million viewers, a record, each of them watching from home, atomized and all but alone, a tribe still bound by its colors but unable to gather under its standard.
To some, what they watched was not football but mere business, a transaction devoid of emotion, an event held simply to protect broadcasting revenues. Sport, after all, does not have an inherent purpose; we imbue it with meaning, with consequence, and the fans in the stands serve as avatars for the millions more watching at home, their reactions shaping and reflecting ours.
Most of Germany's powerful organized fan groups had made it plain that games played in isolation, without the public, without the spectacle, could only ever mean nothing. A slim banner was displayed in the stands for Augsburg's game with Wolfsburg. "Soccer will survive," it read. "It's your business that is sick."
In those first few minutes of play Saturday, as the players tried to shake off the rust in front of gray, still stands in six cities, and two more Sunday, it was hard not to wonder whether it had any meaning at all. It was not a spectacle. Without the spectacle, it is hard to make a case for it as a business. Without the business, the sport — at least in its current form — cannot go on.
But then, with a little less than half an hour played, something happened. Dortmund's Julian Brandt flicked the ball into the path of his teammate Thorgan Hazard. His cross evaded Schalke's defense. Erling Haaland took two paces, opened his body, and steered the ball home: the first goal of football's immediate future.
In that moment, you could see beyond the silence and the grayness and the sorrow, beneath the business and the sport, that football is just a game. But it is a good game.
Written by: Rory Smith
Photographs by: Felix Schmitt, Emile Ducke and Louisa Marie Summer
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES