The Bundesliga returned last weekend with a giesterwoche, the German word for a match day played behind closed doors (literally, a “ghost week”). I managed to watch about 2/3rds of the games, those carried on Fox Sports 1 and 2. On the whole, it was good to have new football back, though like everything else in quarantine, it will take some getting used to.Embed from Getty Images
Much of the talk going into the weekend focused on the empty stadiums and the unnaturalness of playing without fans. While I can understand why this would be potentially disorienting for players and commentators, I have never understood the refrains that in-stadium fans are essential to televised matches. In part, this probably reflects my American context. Even leaving aside the difficulty of getting to London for a West Ham game, I am actually relatively fortunate to only have a 3 hour drive to attend the Chicago Fire–and this is much closer than for any team I support in other US sports. The fact of the matter is that living in a continent-sized country with a highly mobile population means that US sports fans accept television fandom as the norm.Embed from Getty Images
But if we’re being honest, isn’t that true of European fans too? While there may be some supporters that only watch their club in person, home and away, surely the majority of fans do most of their watching on television. It makes me wonder how people are watching games. I’m usually busy trying to work out what the two sides are doing, both in terms of their original game plans and their reactions to one another. Though the occasional pitch invader* or flare on the field adds a bit of color, the rest of it could be replaced with an artificial soundtrack and I literally wouldn’t know the difference.
As I was flipping channels the other day, though, I caught a bit of quarantine-style WWF wrestling. Watching two men in costumes pretending to fight one another in an eerily quiet studio while another man in a referee’s outfit pretended to enforce some sort of rules suddenly seemed a lot more ludicrous. Willing suspension of disbelief, absent the shouts of the crowd, was hard to come by. Football doesn’t require the same leap of faith as professional wrestling–being an actual sporting event–but it did make me wonder if viewing that is more geared to narrative interest and pleasure than to problem-solving might be more discomfited by the lack of a live audience.Embed from Getty Images
But if the lack of crowds struck me as a non-issue, intensity and/or fitness did seem to be a problem in several of the past weekend’s games. In quite a few games, the contest seemed to peter out once one team got ahead. The result was impressive scorelines, but not necessarily good games. This was often the case even in the second halves of games with lively and compelling first halves, like Union Berlin – Bayern Munich. The worst example was the Revierderby, which was a real damp squib despite Erling Halaand scoring the first goal of the geisterwoche restart, his 10th goal in 9 games. It’s clearly Halaand’s world right now, but the game as whole simply dried up and withered away. Let’s hope today’s Berlin derby will offer a full 90 minutes of commitment.
It’s difficult to know how much of this is a real difference, created either by lack of fitness or a reduced sense of purpose (possibly because of empty stadiums?), and how much is simply a projection of unrealistic expectations onto the general ebb and flow of a typical set of match day games. Hopefully, it will be an adjustment issue, whether for the players or for my viewing of them.Embed from Getty Images
Having said that, at least 2 of the weekend’s 9 games were absolutely fantastic. Leipzig – Freiburg was probably the best of them; a tight affair from start to finish that ended in a 1-1 draw. Köln – Mainz was also a great 2-2 for neutrals (less so for Köln fans, who saw their side leading 2-0 with just 30′ left), and the highlights of Augsburg – Wolfsburg also looked like a solid affair throughout, though this may have been a product of editing.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the games as televised was the impact of the new covid protocols on VAR. With the reduction of on-site support and a quite significant delay in the communication of the “official” VAR video clips, commentators were left much more to their own devices in trying to make sense of calls on the field. While it wasn’t a perfect analog (access to even limited commercial replays is a significant advantage in figuring out what’s going on), the confusion and lack of numerous replays to fill delays helped to create a televised experience of VAR much closer to that of the in-stadium feeling. It has made me much more sympathetic to the frustrations about those delays.Embed from Getty Images
With the second geisterwoche starting today, and an Englische Geisterwoche this Tuesday and Wednesday, there will be plenty of German football to watch in the coming days. It will be interesting to see how the players and teams adapt to this new environment. Fans, I am sure, will continue to watch. What else would we do?
*Streakers or parachuters are the best, with the highest honor going to the West Ham lad, immortalized in the opening credits of the Men in Blazers show, who ran on and took a waiting free kick (a bit tamely, it must be said) while the two teams watched on. Fellow supporters paid his legal bills.