Football is back.
How long it will last remains unknown, while the atmosphere-less stadia that greeted the Bundesliga’s return on Saturday confirmed just how different sport will be in the early days of the post-pandemic world.
Although questions remain over the morality of playing high-level sport while thousands around the world continue to suffer with the impact of Covid-19, for 90 minutes on Saturday it was a pleasant distraction to be analysing tactical systems rather than infection rates.
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Of course, the game will look and sound unfamiliar in these early weeks.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was played to an empty Westfalenstadion ahead of Borussia Dortmund’s derby clash with Schalke, the usually intimidating Yellow Wall nowhere to be seen. Substitutes were forced to sit two metres apart while all wearing facemasks. Even the pace of the game, after 66 days without a top-flight fixture in Germany, was no quicker than a pre-season friendly for the most part.
Some things, though, remain a constant no matter the situation. Get the ball to Erling Haaland in front of goal and the Norwegian teenager will, in all likelihood, find the back of the net.
It was fitting given all that has come before in this 2019-20 season that the breakout star of the past 12 months would be the man to score the first goal of elite football’s return, the 19-year-old guiding Thorgan Hazard’s cross into the back of the net shortly before the half-hour mark.
Haaland’s celebrations have already created plenty of headlines this year, and he opted to mark his 13th goal in 12 Dortmund appearances by making a point to ensure he remained socially distanced from his delighted team-mates. Surely there will be others watching who are choreographing their own hygiene-themed routines for when they eventually get their chance to take to the pitch?
Haaland certainly was not socially distancing 15 minutes later, as his pressing of Schalke goalkeeper Markus Schubert forced a rushed clearance that eventually led to Raphael Guerreiro firing into the bottom corner shortly before half time.
The three points were secure moments into the second half with Hazard, who only started the game after Gio Reyna suffered an injury in the warm-up that denied the 17-year-old a first senior start, finishing off a fine counterattacking move involving Haaland and the impressive Julian Brandt.
Guerreiro added a fourth shortly after as Haaland this time provided the assist to round off an impressive performance from Dortmund, who had not played for two months and were without Marco Reus, Axel Witsel and Emre Can due to injury. Jadon Sancho, meanwhile, was restricted to just 12 minutes off the bench as he nurses a minor calf complaint.
At full time, the home side joined together to applaud the handful of staff who were in attendance before performing a socially distanced celebration in front of the empty home end.
They sit one point behind leaders Bayern Munich ahead of the champions’ clash with Union Berlin on Sunday, though, in truth, the destination of the Bundesliga title is the least of football’s worries right now.
This is a weekend when sport needed to show that it can find a place within the new normal. Everyone in the world is getting used to the changes they will have to make to survive, and this was football taking its first tentative steps into the unknown.
It might not be to everyone’s taste, and there will be those who continue to question whether the risks outweigh the rewards of rushing the game back in the circumstances.
Someone, though, had to take the leap eventually, and credit to both Germany and the Bundesliga for the planning that went into the resuming their league so soon.
Football fans – and Haaland – thank them.