Staunch soccer fan shows up for game nixed by COVID-19

players-run-for-ball-during-empty-bundesliga-game

Players run for the ball in an empty stadium during the Bundesliga match between Borussia Moenchengladbach and 1.FC Cologne in Moenchengladbach, Germany, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (Martin Meissner/AP)

BERLIN — Gates closed, turnstiles locked, an empty ground and stillness all around. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Union Berlin fans had this date marked as soon as the schedule was made. Even before then, they were thinking of Bayern Munich’s visit last May when their side clinched promotion in a playoff against Stuttgart.

“We played Bayern before, but never in the Bundesliga,” said Klaus Gesell, the only Union fan outside the Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium at the Old Forester’s House) on Saturday as what should have been kickoff time approached.

Union’s biggest Bundesliga game of the season was called off on Friday, swept up in the fear about the coronavirus pandemic.

But Gesell is one of those staunch fans. A season-ticket holder, he brought his dog, who wore an FC Union bandanna, to the stadium in hope of finding fellow diehards with which to sympathize.

“I thought there would be a few more fans here as some went with a steamboat along the Spree (river) and I thought they would meet here. But unfortunately that wasn’t the case,” Gesell told The Associated Press. “We’re on our own.”

But two Bayern fans showed up, after taking their booked flight from Munich that morning.

“There were only seven people on the flight,” Bayern fan Harry Knödlseder said. “The pilot came to us and said how nice it was to have us on the plane.”

Knödlseder understood the decision to call off the game.

“It’s a pity, but health is more important,” he said.

Usually a busy hub before games, Ostkreuz train station was eerily quiet. No fans wearing club colours sipped bottles of beer as they normally do on their way to Union’s stadium.

In a sign of the times, a security announcement at the station informed passengers that doors on the trains would open automatically so people no longer needed to touch the button.

Berlin schools are to close from Monday. The senate closed pubs and clubs with immediate effect on Saturday. Theaters, opera houses, swimming pools, museums, and libraries are all closed.

Soccer is often a respite for fans from everyday problems. A chance to escape briefly from life’s regular hardships and enjoy community with thousands of others for a few hours. Even when the German soccer league stated early on Friday the weekend’s matches would proceed as planned without spectators — what have been dubbed “ghost games” -— and the league would be suspended only briefly after the 26th round, there was, for fans, still soccer to watch at least.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chairman of Bayern, Germany’s biggest and most profitable club, welcomed that decision, saying income from TV broadcasters meant the games had to go ahead: “At the end of the day it’s about finances and a large payment from television broadcasters to the clubs, which is still outstanding. If this payment isn’t made many clubs would have financial problems.”

But Bayern midfielder Thiago Alcantara and others strongly disagreed.

Thiago wrote on Twitter: “This is crazy. Please stop fooling around and land on reality. Let’s be honest, there are much more important priorities than any sport.”

Union goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz also slammed the federation’s position. He tweeted: “Soccer players are being treated like monkeys in a circus.”

After news broke that second-division sides Hannover and Nuremburg put their teams in 14 days of quarantine following positive tests for COVID-19, Kicker magazine wrote: “Stop the Bundesliga immediately! Postpone the European Championship!”

The league’s position became untenable when Paderborn coach Steffen Baumgart was being tested for the virus after displaying symptoms, hours before his team was due to play at Fortuna Dusseldorf.

Eventually, reluctantly, after Europe’s other four big domestic leagues had already been shut down, the German soccer authorities gave in and suspended all Bundesliga games. Paderborn defender Luca Kilian later became the first Bundesliga player to test positive for the new coronavirus.

After Bayern’s visit, Union was due to play city rival Hertha Berlin next week.

Gesell the staunch Union fan would have been at that game, too.

He and his Union-bandannaed dog turned away from the stadium to head home, sad and disconcerted. But knowing there are more important things than soccer.

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