Bundesliga returned behind closed doors on Saturday, with the eerie atmosphere inside the arenas dominating discussions. Borussia Moenchengladbach, however, are waiting with a stadium packed, with fans cut out for lockdown.
It was mid-March when life-long Moenchengladbach supporter Ingo Mueller first thought of printing out the cardboard cutouts. Quarantined in Berlin, the 51-year-old was sulking over Bundesliga suspension when his wife asked: “Why don’t you get a picture taken of yourself and put it in the stadium?”
Mueller contacted a web developer friend, some local printers, and put together a portal through which fans can purchase a cardboard cutout of their likeness for 19 euros (Rs 1,600), to be planted in the Borussia-Park stadium seats. Mueller and Co expected 500 to a maximum of 2,000 orders. They’ve crossed 17,000.
“This morning, we added another 2,000 cutouts at the stadium,” Mueller told The Indian Express before Moenchengladbach’s away game at Frankurt. “We are pretty beat now so we’ll take a shower and go out to watch the match with some friends.”
While bars remain closed in Berlin, restaurants, Mueller says, are slowly reopening. Both are open in Moenchengladbach, with restrictions such as allowing a specific number of people per square metre in place. Mueller, who runs a small-film studio and shuttles between Berlin and Moenchengladbach, remembers approaching the club with his plan. “They said great, the stadium isn’t being used. Proceed as you like.”
Part of the proceeds will go to a fund for fans requiring financial help, while the initiative is also assisting smaller local businesses such as printers and photographers. Away fans are also welcome to place orders for when their teams come visiting, though Mueller doesn’t expect rival clubs to “copy the idea because we did it first.”
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In the South Korean league, Wyverns presented a home crowd in Incheon with seats covered by horizontal banners showing photos of fans wearing the team’s hats and masks. In Taiwan, Rakuten Monkeys have been competing in front of cardboard cutouts, robot drummers, and live cheerleaders.
Belarusian Premier League champions Dynamo Brest, however, were the first ones to put on football for dummies. Early last month, the club filled parts of the OSK Brestsky stadium with mannequins in football shirts, topped with photos of fans who bought tickets online at 67 Belarusian rubles (Rs2,000). A portion of the money was used in the nation’s fight against coronavirus.
“We’re not trying to imitate a full stand. We understand the fans who have refused to come to the games. We decided to take a creative approach to the situation,” Dynamo Brest general secretary Vladimir Machulsky told AP. The club has since progressed further and will be trying out Augmented Reality tickets for their upcoming matches.
Belarus was the only professional league in Europe that continued to plow through even as other European nations suspended or ended their seasons. Nina Kananiuk, the press secretary for Dynamo Brest, says fans worldwide turned their attention to Belarusian football and “virtually attended the matches.”.
“It is absolutely understandable and natural. We were the only country to continue playing. Of course, our club did everything possible to support and satisfy the increased interest of fans from dozens of countries,” Kananiuk tells this paper.
On Thursday, the national health ministry reported 26,772 confirmed coronavirus cases in Belarus, with more than 150 deaths. Last week, one Belarusian Premier League match and one first division game were postponed due to suspected positive cases.
Dynamo Brest play their next match on Thursday, and with fans starting to return to the stadiums, the club says they’re following recommendations from the health and sports ministries.
“Tickets for the games are sold in the checkerboard order, the recommendations of the Ministry of Health are broadcast on LED screens, and they are also voiced by the host before a game begins. At the entrance to the stadium, there are specialists with thermal vision cameras, there are also hand sanitizers for fans,” says Kananiuk. “The condition of the players is monitored by professionals and they observe all precautionary measures. Luckily, all of them are healthy and continue training in the same mode as before.”
Mueller meanwhile says fans would have preferred ending the Bundesliga season rather than resuming.
“We would have preferred to end it after the first half, around Christmas in December. It’s not just because Moenchengladbach were second in the table, but that was the moment when every club had played the other clubs once. Now it’s all mixed up. There are nine matches left to be played and it’s not even sure if they’re able to finish the season. A couple of corona cases within a team or two teams and then it’s all f**ked up.”
Part of the ‘Block B’ fan club, Mueller is happy for the players “because football is what they live for”, but is against the “ghost matches”.
“I’m really sad because football doesn’t make sense without the atmosphere in the stadium, no matter how small it is. We are against this, what we are calling, is a ghost match.”
He then reveals that installing the cutouts is also a form of protest from the fans.
“We want to show people around the world that football makes no sense without fans because maybe it looks colourful with all those “people” in there,” says Mueller. “But they are not real people. They can’t sing, they can’t cheer, they can’t do anything. They’re just there as a symbol of protest.”
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