The mundane oddness of the situation was summed up by Saturday’s title celebration. DFL boss Christain Seifert, whose organization runs the Bundesliga, pointed Bayern Munich captain Manuel Neuer towards the Meisterschale in order for Neuer to lift the trophy in front of an empty stadium, rather than handing it over.
“This is a special moment, but also a very strange one,” Seifert said. “We’ve never experienced a season like this before. No fans, no celebrations, no whistles – it’s an odd atmosphere. It’s not the Bundesliga that we want, but it was the only Bundesliga that was possible.”
Not everyone agreed with that, particularly when plans were being hatched last month. Games behind closed doors, or Geisterspiele as they’re called in Germany, were one of a number of issues where large sections of fans and authorities were at odds.
“We experienced a season like nothing we’ve experienced before, and hopefully we never will,” Helen Breit, a board member of Unsere Kurve, Germany’s biggest collection of active fans, told DW. “No one could have guessed in the beginning of the season that it would go this way. We’ve seen conflicts between fans and the associations and clubs intensifying shortly before the coronavirus break. Just like every other aspect around fan culture at the stadium, it was brought to a standstill.”
Football grinds to a halt
At the end of February, just as the seriousness of the pandemic was starting to become apparent in Europe, there had been a standstill of a different sort in Bayern Munich’s game against Hoffenheim. The match in Sinsheim was interrupted after fan protests, with Bayern players and officials remonstrating with fans about banners criticizing Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp and various decisions from the German game’s governing bodies, particularly the DFB (German FA).
After the players and match officials left the pitch, the last 13 minutes were eked out with the teams passing the ball aimlessly between themselves and refusing to play. At the time it seemed the issue might define the Bundesliga season, but just one full matchday later, play was stopped altogether.
When it started up again more than two months later, on the pitch at least, normal service was resumed. Borussia Dortmund hammered Schalke 4-0 in their first game back, but a 1-0 loss at home to Bayern 11 days later effectively ended their title challenge after Hansi Flick had replaced Niko Kovac early in the season and steadied the Bayern ship. The Bavarians’ eighth title in a row led to the familiar debate about their dominance and what it means for the league.
“I think it is worrying, but part of a wider issue,” journalist Kit Holden, who writes about the Bundesliga for English and German publications, told DW. “Bayern were always dominant, but it used to be that there was space for any club to break that dominance if they had an outstanding season or a once-in-a-generation coach. The top six is now a lot more stodgy, and I think that is partly why teams like Leipzig and Dortmund have not taken advantage of Bayern’s slips.
“They have more to lose by dropping out of the top four than they have to win by beating Bayern to the title in a single year. The table has become more predictable from top to bottom, and that is not just Bayern’s fault.”
Grim times for Schalke, Union overachieve
As Holden went on to mention, Union Berlin’s survival was one of few stories of great overachievement in the 2019-10 Bundesliga campaign. A fiery 1-0 win over fellow capital city club Hertha was the highlight of a campaign that saw Urs Fischer’s outsiders survive comfortably and finish in 11th. For newly-monied Hertha, a chaotic season saw Jürgen Klinsmann come and go but finish once again in midtable mediocrity. They ended up 10th, above Union on goal difference.
Disappointingly, Hertha also made headlines back in February after their defender Jordan Torunarigha was racially absued by a small section of Schalke fans. It was the first of many bleak stories to emerge from a miserable campaign on and off the pitch for the Gelsenkirchen club. But the actions of players like Jadon Sancho, Weston McKennie and Marcus Thuram highlighted the growing momentum of the Black Lives Matter late in the season, with Bundesliga players taking a knee in solidarity.
At the conclusion of the season, only two issues were unresolved; the final Champions League spot and the battle for the relegation playoff. While Werder Bremen capitalized on Fortuna Düsseldorf’s tepid last day performance to secure the latter, Borussia Mönchengladbach did their bit to clinch Champions League football on the last day. Their coach Marco Rose, in his first season with The Foals, perhaps summed up the prevailing mood better that most.
“The most important missing factor is our fans,” he said on Saturday. “I hope that our fans, and we have very, very many of them around the world, enjoy an extraordinary success for this club. I’m mighty proud of the boys, of this club. It’s something special. With fans, this would have been explosive today. Of course we hope…you’ll be back next season.”
Even Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller, a relentless winner raised in a relentless winning machine, conceded something was missing. “Of course all is different during the corona times,” he said. “The competition is the same, but I wish the fans would be back soon, we hope we can integrate them back bit by bit again. Without the fans, there’s something missing.”
Whether Rose and Müller’s hopes for a return to normality will be granted is unclear. But, unlike many of its peers, Germany’s top flight season has finished, and all that remains is to see whether Bayern can clinch yet another double in the German Cup final against Bayer Leverkusen on July 4. Perhaps Peter Bosz’s side might just provide one more twist in this strange but familiar tale.
Interviews for this story were conducted by Felix Tamsut and Oli Moody.