Return of Football Was Good for the Soul, and More

To anyone involved in sport the clatter of studs leaving the dressing room on the way to the pitch is an evocative sound. It’s not one you get to hear on TV too often but it was like a clarion call on Saturday as the players of Borrusia Dortmund and Shalke 04 ran out into an empty stadium that would normally have held over 80,000 screaming partisan fans.

Nobody fully knew what it was going to be like. The Dortmund players in yellow looked relaxed and were joking as they emerged first. The Shalke 04 players that followed up them looked more serious but they were all wearing face masks so it was a little difficult to tell.

Paul Dempsey’s voice was a familiar reminder of days of old and the scouse accent of Steve McManaman was another echo of what sport was up until early March.

The shrillness of the whistle that got things underway was as piercing as if it was on the open expanses of Albert or Kilbogget Park for an U14 match on any other weekend.

The ball was stroked around the pitch and it took probably around five minutes for it to seem like something more than a pastiche.

The hours and days and weeks of planning; the hand wringing over health concerns and nervous preparation over sanitisation; the 41 pages of protocols about how things would be in an empty stadium had been all there was to talk about for what seemed an eternity.

And that was it, five minutes and it all seemed such a natural thing again.

We were watching tackles, skill passes, the occasional spit which looked out of place alright, but it was recognisably football and that was a marker that things could come back again.

Over 6 million viewers tuned in across Germany to the Sky Coverage of the return to football on Saturday afternoon. That represents a doubling of what would have been expected for the games under normal circumstances.

The games were additionally carried to over 70 countries around the world under existing deals. They were broadcast in Ireland on BT Sport, available as part of the Sky Sports Extra package and on NowTV.

When the first goal went in you could hear the ball hit the back of the net, literally, and the players had obviously prepared their socially distant celebration in advance.

The quality of the game was high, perhaps even better than normal without the fear of the crowd’s reaction to any mistake, and it felt as though there was real hope that sport was on its way back to fill our evenings and our weekends, on the pitches and on the screens.

This was just a first tentative step. It was in many ways like the first steps of a young child. Faltering at first but then taken with a kind of giddy joy and to be long remembered by those who watched them throughout the bumps and falls that will come along the way.

Sport without fans is how sport is played in all but the most rarefied of atmospheres. It looked and felt a bit odd on Saturday but it was a step back to normality and an important one.

It makes no sense from a financial perspective in the short term but this is a marathon not a sprint.

Getting it back for tens or even hundreds of millions of viewers around the world was good for the clubs, good for the broadcasters, good for Evonik, the chemicals giant that employs 32,000 people and is the main club sponsor of Dortmund, and good for the soul.

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