With reporting by Nick Judd, Stephan Uersfeld and Tom Fenton
As Bayern Munich's players waited to be reunited for the eighth season running with the Meisterschale trophy given to the league champions, Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert took the opportunity to recognise their remarkable achievement of finishing the 2019-20 season.
The Bundesliga was the first major European football league to return after sport stopped due to the coronavirus outbreak. Thanks to the work of everyone from health experts to stadium security guards, from the people charged with disinfecting the footballs to the fans who stayed away, from the footballers who were quarantined and then routinely tested to the sound engineers who did their best to re-create German football's famous atmosphere, collectively it was an incredible feat.
Bayern Munich had just dispatched Wolfsburg 4-0 at their Volkswagen Arena on June 27, the league already long secure. The players were standing in anticipation as Seifert and Bayern Munich captain Manuel Neuer walked onto the pitch, with the Bundesliga music booming out in front of the empty stands. Before Neuer lifted the hefty champions' plate, Seifert spoke to German and European football as a whole.
"This is a special moment but also a very, very odd moment," Seifert said. "I have never experienced a season like that. No supporters, no cheering and no whistling, a strange atmosphere.
"But it's a great achievement that we have completed the season today. The Bundesliga was the first league to come back. Yes, it looks different, it sounds different and it also feels different. But that was the only Bundesliga possible."
He then addressed the fans directly: "Support your teams in the coming season. But the new season will still look different, at least at the beginning."
Did the protocols work?
Before the league restarted on May 16, the DFB and DFL put together an incredibly detailed document outlining the protocols designed to safely restart the league. There were early hiccups, as one would expect: Augsburg manager Heiko Herrlich left the team hotel to buy toothpaste and skin cream, only to be placed in self-isolation, missing their first match back because he broke the protocols. But by and large, the teams followed the guidance. "As far as I know, no-one has tested positive for the coronavirus following the restart," Borussia Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc said. "A big compliment to all involved, but especially the players, who with a few exceptions stuck to the rules set in the medical paper."
It wasn't a flawless transition, as may have been expected; Dortmund duo Jadon Sancho and Manuel Akanji were fined by the league after receiving a visit from a barber. At Union Berlin, club captain Christopher Trimmel was caught celebrating with a few fans who'd turned up to the ground to celebrate the club cementing their topflight spot for next season. He was also fined by the league, but tested negative twice for COVID-19 ahead of their next game.
As the season progressed, stringent protocols were loosened. There was less paranoia and criticism of teams celebrating goals like they did pre-lockdown. The protocols written in April look a little dated in June, with various adjustments over social distancing having changed since then. Back then, there was a contact ban in place in Germany, meaning you were only allowed to meet one person from another household. This has since been lifted, shops are open again and life in Germany is nearly back to normal. (Except when it comes to games in front of fans.) Only masks worn on public transport and in shops serve as a reminder, especially in bigger cities.
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The matchday experience also became more relaxed, as club delegations were increased from eight to 10 for home teams, and from four to five for away teams. Substitutes started the post-lockdown matches wearing masks, but were later able to go without provided they kept a safe distance.
Other leagues followed the Bundesliga's example. After Liverpool had secured the Premier League on June 25 -- their league returning a month after the Bundesliga -- Jurgen Klopp felt compelled to recognise the German league's important role.
"I sent a thank-you message to Christian Seifert. We had a lot of contact with him during the lockdown," Klopp, who previously managed in Germany at Borussia Dortmund and Mainz, said Friday. "I told him that this title would not have been possible without him because the Bundesliga just was an incredible role model. It was a relief for us here in England."
What was the quality of play like?
The league largely played out to script. Bayern Munich ended up cruising to their eighth straight title, securing the championship in Matchday 32. Dortmund finished second and Leipzig third, with neither team quite hitting top form. The best battle at the top was for fourth, where Borussia Monchengladbach just snuck into the Champions League spots ahead of Bayer Leverkusen. It looks like these five clubs are threatening to pull away from the rest of the chasing pack. At the other end of the table, Werder Bremen survived, for now, by the skin of their teeth as they leapfrogged Fortuna Dusseldorf on the final day of the season. Werder face a relegation play-off match against Heidenheim on July 6.
But there were interesting ramifications resulting from playing behind closed doors, which became known as geisterspiele ("ghost games"). "We've seen more away wins," Zorc said. "You can see the influence the fans have at home games. It might have been a bit easier for the technically more gifted teams, those with more structure."
The home team won just 27 of the 81 post-lockdown matches -- a win ratio of 33%, down from 45% before the league's hiatus. Those at home picked up more disciplinary actions than the away team (it went from 1.7 yellows to 2.1 post-lockdown for the home team, with the away team settling on an average of 2 yellows per game), while the away team's xG (expected goals) rose from 1.48 to 1.51 post-lockdown and the home team's fell from 1.7 to 1.49. Dortmund, usually so strong at Signal Iduna Park, recorded just two wins from six, while Leipzig failed to win a single game at their Red Bull Arena.
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There were other interesting trends. While the ball-in-play time remained the same after the coronavirus break (57 minutes per 90), the players covered less ground (116.2 kms per game down to 115.3), the home team had fewer shots (on average down to 13, from 15) and the away team put in more "intense runs." The new five-substitute rule was used in 56% of the matches post-lockdown, and managers tended to make their first switches at nearly exactly the same time before and after the pause (pre-lockdown managers brought their first player on after 58 minutes; post-lockdown, this was after 57 minutes).
While the lockdown allowed teams like Werder Bremen to regroup, Schalke capitulated, earning two points from a possible 27 and failing to win a single league fixture after the restart. Their game plan is built around pressing and counterattack, but with teams enjoying more time on the ball than pre-lockdown (arguably due to the lack of crowds and their support that can trigger mistakes from opponents or inspire urgency in the home team), pressing was less effective and Schalke scored a paltry five goals in their nine matches.
Schalke 04 remain in an existence-threatening situation and must secure a €40m loan guarantee from their state. Schalke CFO Peter Peters formally left the club on Tuesday (announced last month), and the financial situation led to a layoff of 24 part-time jobs (each of them earning €450 a month). Following the coronavirus outbreak at his meat processing plant and comments investigated by the DFB in 2019, chairman Clemens Tönnies also stepped down.
On the pitch, the Bundesliga's stars were still on show. Robert Lewandowski finished top scorer with 34 league goals, while Timo Werner earned himself a £53 million move to Chelsea. Kai Havertz is coveted by just about every top team in Europe, and the likes of Hertha Berlin's Matheus Cunha and Bayern Munich's Leon Goretzka also impressed.
What did the players have to say?
Before the league restarted, ESPN spoke to players and agents to gauge how comfortable they were with the protocols, and while there was some unease, like from Union Berlin's Neven Subotic, there was broad consensus that players felt comfortable putting themselves in the hands of the medical experts.
"The DFL and German government did and are doing their best to keep everyone safe, so I think everyone did their job well," said Paderborn's Jamilu Collins. "I was happy about the decision to return back to football: we all missed it and we were happy to lead the way."
Schalke's on-loan defender Jonjoe Kenny spoke just prior to the end of the season about how keen he was to finish the season. He told ESPN: "I was really happy when the games did come back on, but all that comes from Schalke giving the lads the confidence and security it was healthy and safe to do so."
USMNT midfielder Fabian Johnson, who left Monchengladbach on June 30, was also happy. "All of the precautions made us feel safe and we didn't have to worry too much," Johnson said. "It means there shouldn't be any goals scored as a result of players not getting close enough to their opponents, which was one of the main concerns of players and fans."
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But the loudest message from the players in the post-lockdown matches came around the Black Lives Matter movement. In Matchday 29, individual players paid their respects to George Floyd, who was killed in police custody, with U.S. international midfielder Weston McKennie wearing a "Justice for George" armband and Jadon Sancho, Achraf Hakimi and Marcus Thuram also showing support. In Matchday 30, Borussia Dortmund's players warmed up pre-match in T-shirts with messages including "No peace, no justice" and "United together." They then took a knee around the centre circle with opponents Hertha Berlin. Bayern Munich wore "red against racism" T-shirts before their match at Bayer Leverkusen, while the league bosses wore armbands reading "Black Lives Matter." The various signs of support and respect received worldwide acclaim and coverage.
"Everyone who has seen the video of George Floyd has seen what's going on in the world and in America right now and they're disgusted by it," McKennie told ESPN. "They want to help make a change and do their fair share at bringing awareness to the world."
McKennie's USMNT teammate Tyler Adams wore boots with "Justice 4 George" and "Black Lives Matter" written on them. He posted on his Instagram account: "As an African-American who day in and day out is proud to represent America in the worlds game, I'm saddened and frustrated. Collectively our voices will bring justice for these crimes. Enough is enough. Black lives Matter. Black lives inspire. Justice for Floyd. Forever one nation, one team. On and off the field."
Did the action make up for the lack of fans?
Given how integral fans and atmosphere are to live sports -- and how the fan culture and matchday experience is a major selling point for the Bundesliga worldwide -- what's been emphasised more than ever in the geisterspiele is how eerie the matches are without packed stands. But the league, the broadcasters and the clubs did their best to bring a touch of the familiar. Borussia Monchengladbach set the early benchmark by offering supporters the chance to buy cardboard cut-outs of themselves to pack out their home stadium, a practice quickly adopted elsewhere in Europe.
Fans were warned early on to stay away from the matches and respect the various guidelines; by and large, they obeyed the request. "A major compliment to the fans," Zorc said. "Because those fears voiced by politicians ahead of the restart, those fears that fans would gather outside the ground, they were proven wrong. Everyone kept what we discussed in so many rounds of background talks."
For those watching on television, Sky Deutschland introduced an option to have stadium sounds served up for viewers on TV. It was a precise, technologically challenging role which proved popular and is now being replicated in the Premier League. But for those on the field, it was a strange experience. "It is curious to not hear and feel the emotions from the fans during matches," Johnson said. "They can be a factor in turning a lost match around or to push you over your limit during the last minutes of the game. That's what I miss most, but we know it's necessary."
For Tyler Adams, the RB Leipzig midfielder, the experience was a reminder of his journey to the top. Adams said: "The situation is not new to me. When I was young, I was playing games where only my mom was watching. We miss the fans, for sure, and we are all looking forward to when the stadiums are full again, but as of now, we have to deal with the situation and make the best out of it."
How will the 2020-21 season look?
No date has yet been set for the new season. One club source told ESPN: "We all don't know what will be for the coming season," which is naturally making it difficult to plan amid so much uncertainty. The COVID-19 figures are at around 500 per day in Germany, primarily down to local outbreaks in Tonnies' region (Gutersloh, but also Gottingen), but there is a fear the virus will return with ferocity once it gets colder again.
The league will work on a new version of the medical protocols, while the clubs and DFL are working on various concepts to bring some fans back to grounds. New technology that monitors social distancing in the stadium will be tested. A company named G2K has been trialed at Dortmund. Their surveillance cameras scanned for fever and masks at the gate as well as identifying any social distancing breaches in the stands. They project that around 25% of the stadium can be filled with the correct guidelines. Sources have told ESPN that some clubs are optimistic about welcoming supporters back next season and may adopt time slots for fans to enter the stadium to space them out. But it will take time, and a lot depends on the COVID-19 numbers. If there is another spike, then football will likely be postponed again -- and, understandably, the regional governments will focus on containing spikes rather than promoting sport.
How about the transfer market?
It will be fascinating to see what the clubs do in the transfer market this summer. Bayern Munich have already made their move for Leroy Sane, but don't expect many marquee deals. Borussia Dortmund's outstanding on-loan right-back Achraf Hakimi is off to Inter Milan, and they've signed Thomas Meunier as his replacement on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain. But they are set to post a €45m deficit for the 2019-20 season and will not be selling any season tickets this summer until they're allowed to fill their Signal Iduna Park again.
So, as the Bundesliga goes into their offseason, preparations are fully underway to see how the 2020-21 season will take shape. The rest of Europe will be watching on keenly, seeing if the Bundesliga can deliver again, like they did as pioneers for what a league looked like in the time of COVID-19.
"What we did was just a big success story," Zorc said. "Maybe a role model for the rest of Europe. The DFL did an outstanding job... It would have been nice if things would have run as smooth in other sectors."