This past weekend, the most resonant sound in the world of sports, heard by hundreds of millions of people, was a rattle: the soft, metallic clinking of a soccer ball ricocheting off the back of a goal net at Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, Germany. It was the first live goal the Bundesliga, the highest level of soccer competition in Germany, had seen in more than two months, gently shepherded in by the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland in a match against FC Schalke 04. The two teams share a deep-seated rivalry dating back nearly a century, and the Bundesliga is renowned for its fan support, with the highest average stadium attendance in the world. What would have once been an inconspicuous sound lost amid a monolithic roar from one of the sport’s great fan bases instantly became a historic artifact of this present moment.
Geisterspiele, or “ghost games,” has been the nomenclature adopted to describe the fan-less matches held as the Bundesliga resumed its 2019–20 season, 66 days after it was suspended due to the spread of COVID-19. The name feels apt in more ways than one. Ghost game eerily describes the auditory experience of watching a Bundesliga match now, both at home and at the arena. “There’s no noise,” the Dortmund coach, Lucien Favre, said after the match. “You create a chance, you play a top pass, a goal and … nothing. It’s very, very weird.” Instead, the stadium amplifies only the shouts of the players on the pitch, stretched and homogenized by endless layers of echo. Geisterspiele as a term captures the sense that the communion kindled by live sports in a past life cannot fully exist in this one. Westfalenstadion is built to house 81,365 fervent fans; on Saturday, there were 213 authorized attendees.