Cristiano Ronaldo may or may not have become the record goalscorer in football history on Wednesday night – depending on who you listen to.
The German Bundesliga is the first major European football championship to end its coronavirus-induced break.
This weekend will see the return to action for 34 of the 36 teams in Germany’s two top-flight divisions, albeit in front of empty stands. And after being deprived of their favourite pastime for almost ten weeks, one would expect Germans to relish the restart. However, according to opinion polls, a majority remains sceptical. Why?
The league’s umbrella organisation, DFL, and its powerful clubs wield significant influence in the football-mad republic, in particular over lawmakers seeking to please their constituents. That doesn’t come as a surprise given about half of the 83 million Germans consider themselves football fans.
Just days after play had been suspended in early March due to the ever-escalating COVID-19 pandemic in Germany Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke was publicly pushing for games to resume behind closed doors. He specifically cited financial imperatives and opined the very survival of the Bundesliga was at stake.
Watzke, who has been a Black and Yellow stalwart since 2005, furthermore stressed the league’s importance as an employer for tens of thousands in Europe’s biggest economy. He described a possible restart as a welcome distraction from the negative headlines and the enduring lockdown restrictions for crisis-fatigued Germans. Fellow club dignitaries and DFL CEO Christian Seifert followed suit and initiated a media blitz for a return to play.
Early on the concerted PR efforts seemed to bear fruit and a majority of Germans were in favour of the league’s plans. Critical voices from fan organisations were silenced by the constant drumbeat of media anticipation. The almost 600,000 fans who on average go through the turnstiles of the first and second Bundesliga stadiums every weekend were merely seen as collateral damage.
It took a string of minor PR disasters to swing public opinion in Germany against the DFL’s plans. On 23 April the DFL published a hygiene plan written by national football team physician Tim Meyer stipulating a whole host of measures, including:
‘Geisterspiele’, or ghost games, as the German media dubbed them, seemed inevitable, especially since the powerful prime ministers of Germany’s two most populous states, Bavaria and North-Rhine Westphalia, where Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are based, threw their considerable weight behind them.
However, there were numerous critics too. Veteran social democratic member of parliament Karl Lauterbach, who also happens to be a professor of epidemiology at Cologne University, deemed the concept a “farce”. Lauterbach bemoaned that about 300 people would still be present at each Bundesliga match location as well as the likelihood of fans gathering outside grounds and in living rooms in breach of the safety rules.
Meanwhile, the general German populace still has to obey contact limitations until 5 June. One can stay in close proximity only to members of one’s own household or one other person outside of it, whereas footballers are granted a generous exception.
No single player did more to undermine the league’s hygiene plan than Ivorian striker Salomon Kalou. On 5 May the former Chelsea striker started a seemingly innocuous Facebook live video but ended up exposing the meaninglessness of the DFL’s plans altogether.
He wandered into the Hertha Berlin training facilities and shook hands with almost everybody present, disturbed a club physician administering a COVID-19 test without wearing the proper protective gear and displayed a generally casual attitude towards the virus, which has so far killed more than 7000 Germans.
Public outrage was immense, yet DFL executive Seifert painted the incident as an exception within a league that in his view was strictly adhering to the rules. Just days later Bundesliga 2 club Dynamo Dresden experienced its third and fourth case of coronavirus. After the first two, local health authorities ordered only the involved players to go into quarantine; this time the entire team had to do so.
Dresden’s two upcoming games against Hannover and Greuther Furth had to be called off, and when the league’s bottom team faces top dogs Bielefeld in two weeks they will have missed out a fortnight of training. In light of the tight relegation battle and Dresden trailing 16th-placed Wiesbaden by only a single point, their huge support base in the east see this treatment as a screaming injustice.
Further cases could wreak havoc on the Bundesliga proceedings, and CEO Seifert had to publicly admit in the popular TV format Sportstudio that the coming weeks had a degree of uncertainty attached to them. No wonder the public’s support has faded significantly over the last couple of weeks according to opinion polls.
So why is the league pushing so hard to be the first to return to play?
Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge gave a clear indication when he stressed “billions will be watching“ if Germany’s Bundesliga were the first major league to restart. In the higher echelons of the league, being the very first competition back on the pitch is seen as a competitive edge over France, England and Spain.
But there’s also a whole host of clubs that have come into serious financial turmoil, with Schalke 04 being the most prominent. Losing out on all ticketing income and parts of the substantial TV money clubs were yet to receive for the remaining nine Bundesliga fixtures would’ve pushed about a dozen clubs over the edge, at least if the official DFL prediction made in early April is to be believed.
Player objections are a minor roadblock in management calculations. Dynamo Dresden midfielder Marco Hartmann told der Spiegel “collateral damages are just an afterthought“ of the league leadership. Bundesliga veteran and 2013 Champions League finalist Neven Subotic was also among the public opponents, admitting that many players feared catching the virus themselves.
The case of Junior Sambia, a 23-year-old Montpelier player in France’s Ligue 1, was also publicised in Germany. The French midfielder caught the virus in March, was treated in intensive care and put into an artificial coma, had to be intubated and barely survived.
The Bundesliga might be back for now, with the league’s biggest derby, Dortmund vs Schalke, kicking off the league with a bang on Saturday. But many Germans have been left wondering if this is the right time to do so.