Coronavirus: Bundesliga embarking on uncharted territory
March 10, 2020
The Bundesliga is set to make history as the coronavirus is forcing the Rhine derby to be played behind closed doors. What's disappointing for the fan poses a completely new challenge for coaches and players.
What had been widely expected for days became official on Tuesday morning, with the announcement by the city of Mönchengladbach that due to the coronavirus outbreak, Wednesday evening's Bundesliga game between Borussia Mönchengladbach and Cologne was to be played behind closed doors.
This followed a recommendation from German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who as early as Sunday had called for all events involving more than 1,000 people to be called off due to the outbreak. Under Germany's system of government though, actual orders to call off events or orders for games to be played behind closed doors can only come from local authorities.
Wednesday evening's match will be a first, not only for the Rhine derby, but also for the Bundesliga as a whole, since previously in Germany, only games in the second or lower divisions had ever been played without spectators.
Disappointment, not a surprise
For fans like Tobias Bernsen, a lifelong FC Cologne member, Tuesday's announcement came as a disappointment, but not a shock.
"Since Sunday, I had been expecting that no spectators would be allowed in," Bernsen told DW. "Of course I was looking forward to a derby, an evening game with a lot of atmosphere, but I can also understand the decision of the health authorities."
Bernsen said he, like many other fans of both sides would simply follow the derby on TV in a pub with friends. However, some supporters, on the Gladbach side of this Rhineland divide, were said to be planning to turn up at the Borussia-Park on Wednesday evening even though they won't be allowed in - something that would seemingly defeat the purpose of playing the game behind doors.
'A new and challenging situation'
While the ticket-holding fans find themselves looking for alternatives to follow the derby, the players find themselves confronted with a completely new situation at their place of work. Sports psychologist Fabian Pels of the German Sport University Cologne says that for a Bundesliga player used to playing in front of tens of thousands of fans, the environment inside the Borussia-Park could be unnerving, especially in the opening minutes.
"You get to hear more of what's going on on the pitch itself, you hear more yelling (from players and coaches), and you can communicate in a different way. It's a new and challenging situation, and it can make you particularly nervous in the beginning," he told DW. "But I would assume that after a phase of feeling things out at the beginning, the whole situation will stabilize or normalize."
However, as Pels points out, it's also a situation that few coaches have any real experience with, but there are things they can do to help prepare their players for a game behind closed doors. These include speaking about the different sounds and atmosphere they will experience during the game, so that they won't be caught as much by surprise. On the other hand, it's also helpful for the coach to remind his players of the things that will remain constant.
"Not everything is different, there will still be the same routines that you will want to go through, and you will look to play the same tactical system," he said. "By combining both aspects, by looking at what will be different and by looking at what will be the same, very good preparation should be possible."
He also noted that being able to get the players into the empty stadium for a training session could help make the environment less strange on the day of a game, something Gladbach coach Marco Rose told reporters at the prematch press conference he was planning on doing.
"We'll train in the stadium today to get a feel for the situation, of course it's not the same as a game," he said. "We won't have our fans behind us tomorrow, but we'll still have to keep up the tension on the pitch."
Rose also happens to be one of the rare coaches who has been involved in a match behind closed doors, a Champions League qualifying match against Red Star in Belgrade in August 2018, when he was still with Red Bull Salzburg.
The Gladbach coach said the match, which ended in a 0-0 draw, "was uncomfortable, the preparation was difficult," and that he would have much preferred to have played the match in front of 50,000 people.
Win or lose on Wednesday night, you have to think he and all of the other participants are bound to feel the same way after the 90 minutes are up. But with the coronavirus outbreak still seemingly on the rise in Germany, it looks like matches behind closed doors are something players, coaches and fans alike may have to get used to for the time being.
The Paris prefecture police ordered on Monday that Dortmund's Champions League match against PSG at the Parc des Princes be played behind closed doors, as will Wolfsburg's Europa League game at home to Shakhtar Donetsk.
In the Bundesliga, the number of matches to be played behind closed doors grew on Tuesday night, with Dortmund being ordered to lock the supporters out of the Signal-Iduna Park when they face Revierderby rivals on Schalke on Saturday. Cologne are also set to face Mainz behind closed doors. Hoffenheim will have no fans against Hertha, while Bremen are to host Leverkusen in an empty Weserstadion on Monday.
With the German FA (DFB) announcing that the international against Italy in Nuremberg at the end of the month will also be played in an empty stadium, one has to wonder whether Tuesday evening's Champions League contest between RB Leipzig and Tottenham in front of a full house will turn out to have been something of a rarity - at least for the time being.