Let’s not pretend there are not risks … Let’s not deny we are encouraging players to behave in a way that we are telling the general population is unsafe.
It is often said that football without fans is nothing but the dystopia we inhabit in the age of the coronavirus has forced us to adapt many views we once considered unshakeable.
When the Bundesliga on Saturday became the first big league to return to action after the lockdown and Borussia Dortmund trounced FC Schalke at an empty Westfalenstadion, it may not have been football as we know it but at least it was something.
At times, it looked and sounded strange. Of course it did. Dortmund’s ground has one of the best atmospheres in all of Europe when there are fans inside, so it seemed particularly cruel to see it deserted for a Revierderby against fierce local rivals. Derbies, more than any other matches, are about supporters and chanting and noise and passion and this was stripped of all of those things.
German fans call these games geisterspiele, or ‘ghost games’, for a reason and there were some watching on television at home who thought Dortmund-Schalke presented a ghastly spectacle, a game played for money, not for love.
The fact remains, sadly, that this is the best we can hope for until the world becomes a safer place again. Whether it is safe for the players, of course, is still a moot point.
Let’s be honest, the 22 players who started yesterday’s match in Dortmund were highly-paid guinea pigs. The Premier League, La Liga and Serie A will be watching and waiting to see quite how this experiment conducted on professional football players progresses. Everyone is holding their breath.
Some armchair generals have been blithely telling players in the English top flight that they must accept there is a risk that they or their manager or the groundsman might die if football returns but that it will be worth it. They make Project Restart sound like it is as safe as washing your hair with a fancy shampoo. It is not.
Let’s not pretend there are not risks, either. Let’s not deny we are encouraging players to behave in a way that we are telling the general population is unsafe.
Schalke players linked arms several times and for concerted periods in defensive walls and attackers grappled with defenders at corners. If it is impossible to catch the coronavirus this way, why are the rest of us being told to stay two metres away from strangers?
That is why men such as Troy Deeney, Raheem Sterling, Tammy Abraham and Glenn Murray, among others, have been right to voice their reservations about the Premier League returning.
That is why managers such as Frank Lampard and Nigel Pearson, among others, have been right to preach caution. There are rumours that there may be a delay in the planned resumption in England’s top flight until June 26. If that is true, it would be welcome.
The Dortmund players, like the rest of us, did their best to imagine the noise and the fury and the celebrations of the old normal, not least when, after the final whistle had confirmed their 4-0 victory, they lined up in front of the steepling stand where the Yellow Wall of their fans usually masses and aped their ritual by bowing to the rows of concrete steps. Pavlov and his dogs came to mind.
But perhaps Owen Hargreaves, the BT Sport commentator, summed it up best. ‘You have to start somewhere,’ he said. Germany, which has recorded only a quarter of the deaths from the virus Britain has, which has tested for the virus more vigorously and is more advanced in lifting its lockdown, is as good a place as any.
And there was much to enjoy about what we saw. There is beauty in football whether it is played in front of 75,000 fans at Old Trafford or 3,000 fans at Edgeley Park or a handful of mums and dads on a muddy pitch at the local park. Sometimes, it does us good to remember that the game is the thing and that there can be beauty in silence, too.
Dortmund’s first goal midway through the first half felt like a feast after a fast. It was beautifully constructed. Dortmund’s most creative player, Julian Brandt, laid the ball into the path of Thorgan Hazard with a sumptuous flick, Hazard ran on to it and crossed it first time for European football’s wunderkind, Erling Haaland, to guide it past Markus Schubert with his left foot.
The players did not celebrate. God forbid. They thought about it but then they just stood and stared at each other with smiles on their faces like awkward teenagers at a school disco.
Other celebrations in other Bundesliga games which were not quite so one-sided were not quite so restrained.
Just before half-time, there was more Dortmund fluency to admire. Schubert made a hash of a clearance — an unfinished symphony, someone called it — and when it reached Brandt, he rolled a perfectly weighted pass to the overlapping Raphael Guerreiro and he shot across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner.
Dortmund went further ahead three minutes after the break when Brandt, once again, was the creator. This time, he squared a pass to Hazard which put him clear through on goal. Hazard’s shot was too close to Schubert but the hapless goalkeeper could not save it.
They completed the rout when Guerreiro played a one-two with Haaland and curled a delicious finish past Schubert with the outside of his left foot.
It felt like an old friend had come back. Except he was not the same as before. Even if it has to be behind closed doors, playing a football season to its completion either in the Bundesliga or the Premier League is a better solution than deciding titles and promotions and relegations on points per game. But only if it is safe.
And until we know it is safe, revelling in the return of football will feel like a guilty pleasure.