“I don’t think football will ever be the same,” said Lionel Messi in a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper, El Pais. The football community had already come to this conclusion, but when arguably the world’s greatest footballer said it, it hit harder.

Bundesliga is the first major European football league to kick-off after the hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The world got its beloved game back, but the feel of the game wasn’t quite the same.

The German league is renowned for its loyal and loud fans, its high matchday attendance, and the exuberant in-house atmosphere that accompanies every game. However, since the restart, the stadiums have been empty, the atmosphere eerie, the intensity on the pitch far less, and the goal celebrations have been awkward and disruptive. Many German fans have referred to these games as “geisterspiele” –ghost games. And ghost games are how football is going to be for a foreseeable future.

A firsthand outcome of absence of fans in the stadium is the dwindling of the home advantage.Speaking before Bayer Leverkusen’s match against Wolfsburg, Peter Bosz – Leverkusen’s manager – said, “I don't think that's a coincidence…It's easier for the away teams when there are no fans in the stadium. Without spectators, it comes down more to the quality of players on the teams.”

Before the interval, the home-win average for the season was above 40%, and after the recommencement, it has fallen to 21%. On the other hand, the away-win percentage has remarkably risen to 51% which earlier stood at a mere 11%. Strikingly, since the restart, there have only been eight home wins from the initial 37 Bundesliga games.

The declination of the home advantage has been more apparent and harsher for the smaller clubs –who don’t have the financial and social capital to attract the finest players and thus, depend on their devoted fanbase for the extra push.

In his recent interview with talkSPORT, Uwe Rosler, manager of Fortuna Dusseldorf – a club battling relegation – spoke about this problem and said, “…especially for the teams in the lower part of the table. A lot of those teams thrive on emotions, spirit, support of the crowd and that is missing…It’s very, very difficult to win games and at the moment, I can see a pattern that the away teams play with more freedom and obviously they’re picking up more points than the home teams.”

Similarly, SC Freiburg manager, Christian Streich recently said, "For us [smaller teams] the absence of fans hurts us more than it does the top teams."

FC Union Berlin – who are enjoying their first-ever Bundesliga season – can be said to be the worst hit because of the empty stadiums. From their first four games, after the coronavirus-induced interval, they have only gained a single point and are now entangled in relegation clamor.

Fans of most, if not all, clubs are special in one way or the other. But the ultras of Die Eisernen or the Irons Ones – as FC Union Berlin are nicknamed – go the extra mile. The club has had a long history of financial turmoil and the fans have often bailed it out. In one such instance in 2008, the club risked losing its license because the terrace of its stadium was crumbling and was hence unsafe. 2500 fans volunteered and rebuilt the stadium. In May 2004, the club was on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to avoid that, their fans started a campaign “Bleed for Union” and donated the reimbursements which were collected from blood donations to the club.

In an interview with BBC, Christian Arbeit, the head of communications at FC Union Berlin, talked about the atmosphere in their home ground, Stadion An der Alten Försterei . He commented, “[the club don't need to] give the fans any help to celebrate. If our team score a goal, it's an explosion of noise and emotion in the stadium.”

While describing the feel inside the stadium, Ingo Petz –a devout fan said, “Union is a place, a rare island, where it's welcomed to support the team in a creative and loud manner.”

Without the presence of such loyal and unwavering fans, clubs like Union Berlin have lost their cutting edge. And unlike the Bayern Munichs and Borussia Dortmunds of the game, these clubs can’t just bank on the quality of their playing XI to guide them through.

Despite being aware of the situation, Union’s captain is still hopeful. After the 4-1 loss at Borussia Mönchengladbach, he said, “We knew in advance that it wouldn’t be easy to survive in the Bundesliga. We have to get points, especially at home.”

The new temporary rule that allows a team to make five substitutions in a match instead of the usual three – another post-coronavirus intervention – was formed on the back of noble intentions.

“It seems to me a positive change, and the right thing to do in a moment like this…There could also be more physical problems during games in this scenario, so it’s a solution that certainly lends a helping hand.” the president of the Italian coaches’ association, Renzo Ulivieri, said recently.

Though unintentionally, this rule tends to leave the smaller clubs in the mud because unlike the richer, bigger clubs they don’t have the resources to maintain the same depth and quality in their reserves as they have in their playing XIs.

Given the situation, the rule is important but as the football author and journalist, Michael Cox, pointed out in his article in The Athletic, the rule must remain temporary.

Another thing that the viewers must not forget – in this new, unfamiliar world of football – is that the players and the officials are making a big sacrifice and the conditions can go haywire at any unfortunate moment. It is a privilege that we are getting to witness football and talk about it like we used to do in the good old days. This, in itself, warrants appreciation.

Saurabh Nagpal, a second-year English Honours student at Hindu College, University of Delhi