BundesligaFootballFootball League

The Bundesliga has a plan to return to action: What is it? Will it work? Will other leagues follow?

April 28, 2020January 6th, 2022

THE eyes of the sporting world will soon turn to the Bundesliga, as Germany’s top flight prepares to become the first major football league to resume play amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bundesliga’s plan to restart on May 9 still needs to be given the green light by the country’s government, though, and there is already vocal opposition to the proposal in some quarters. Professor Uwe G. Liebert, head of the Institute of Virology at the University of Leipzig, is sceptical of whether the safety of the players and staff involved in the remaining fixtures can yet truly be guaranteed.

“We don't know about the long-term effects of an illness with Covid-19,” Leibert told Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. “It's possible to get very sick or die from the virus at a young age. You can only detect an infection after 48 hours. From my point of view, all people in contact with a soccer player are first-degree contacts, so everyone would have to go in quarantine, possibly also the opposing team.”

Part of the protocol the Bundesliga has drawn up dictates that players will be tested regularly, with as many as 20,000 tests expected to be required for season to be completed. And each player’s temperature will be checked before entering a stadium on game days in an effort to catch early signs of infection.

Large gatherings remain banned in Germany until at least October 24. As such, the Bundesliga is proposing a limit on the total number of people present within each stadium on match days, with no fans allowed and the combined number of players, coaching and medical staff, TV personnel and other essential staff set to be capped at around 300.

With the obvious exception of the action on the pitch, social distancing will be observed in stadiums, too. There will also be extra changing room space made available and additional sinks will be installed. There will be no handshakes between players and no live post-match press conferences.

Financial concerns are at the heart of the desire to bring about a swift return for football leagues across Europe, and the Bundesliga is no different. A £265m portion of the league’s TV deal is potentially at stake – although an agreement had reportedly been struck with many broadcasters to ensure remaining chunk of rights money would be paid, albeit with a delay.

"If we don't play in the next few months, all of the Bundesliga will go under and then there wouldn't be a league in the way we know it," Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke told Sky TV. "Of course, many fans say: 'There's no desire for it, it's not on television,' that is perfectly clear, but it's about saving football.

"We are doing all we can to get back to work, we don't want any special treatment, definitely not, but we don't want to be at a disadvantage either. Football can play a relevant role in society, but that's not the question, we have to do all we can to avoid that someone says football has special treatment.

"We don't want to start with a special position, but, again, you can't compare football with other more popular sports, we want to do our jobs."

With all games to be played behind closed doors, some fear there is a very real risk that supporters will gather in large numbers nearby, replicating scenes in Paris last month when Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League victory over Dortmund was cheered by thousands of fans immediately outside the Parc des Princes.

"Maybe it is possible to control what is happening in the stadium. This does not apply to the public space in front of it. The stadiums become a potential target for fans who want to support their team," said Jorg Radek, deputy chairman of the German Police Trade Union.

"That would be devastating. We can't have large crowds outside the stadium gates. It's not only forbidden, it would be irresponsible.”

The league has stipulated, however, that any game around which fans congregate will immediately be postponed. Whether that is enough of a deterrent remains to be seen.

Fourth-placed Borussia Monchengladbach, whose next scheduled home game comes against fifth-placed Bayer Leverkusen in the second wave of resumed fixtures, have devised an ingenious way of ensuring their fans can still feel part of the matchday experience.

Their “Stay Home. Be in the Stands” campaign has so far seen more than 8,000 fans order cardboard cut-outs of themselves to be placed around the stadium during home games.

The derby between Gladbach and Cologne on 11 March was the last Bundesliga game played before the shutdown, and the first in the league’s 57-year history to be played behind closed doors – a glimpse of what is to become the new normal for the comings months. In many ways – with Bayern top, Dortmund second and the usual suspects battling for the remaining Champions League spots – it will be business as usual.

Germany’s response to the pandemic has been widely commended, with mass testing and strict lockdowns quickly implemented, resulting in a much lower death rate than, for example, the UK, Italy, Spain and other badly affected areas. But, even so, there is still a feeling among many that it is too soon for football to return there.

The rest of the football world – not least the Premier League, whose own tentative plans for a June return are currently being scrutinised by fans and media alike – will be watching on when the Bundesliga resumes, eager to learn what football’s new reality looks like in practice and whether the world is ready to welcome it back.