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The Bundesliga Is Back in Body but Not in Spirit

Professional soccer in Germany will resume this weekend, but safety concerns and “ghost games” played in empty stadiums mark the occasion with melancholy rather than celebration

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

And so it begins, again. The Bundesliga will resume this weekend, 66 days after its last game, becoming the first major European soccer league to return since play was suspended in March due to the global pandemic. All remaining games in Germany’s top flight and the leagues below will be Geisterspiele—ghost games—played in empty stadiums under strict conditions, with limited staff on-site. The opening matchday on Saturday will feature possibly the most jarring example of this new reality, as Borussia Dortmund host Schalke in the Revierderby, one of the league’s most intense rivalries. Dortmund currently trail leaders Bayern Munich—chasing an eighth straight title—by four points, and Bayern is scheduled to visit Dortmund on May 26. But details surrounding the league’s title race have already become secondary to concerns about the protocols to ensure the safety of players and staff participating in the games.

In a pure sporting sense, it’s a shame the world will be watching arguably its most entertaining soccer league when it is operating in far from optimal conditions. Fan culture is a huge factor in making German soccer so special, with atmospheres consistently among the very best in Europe. The absence of fans this weekend will be a stark reminder of the impact the pandemic has taken on sport, industry, and society. Take Dortmund as an example: The Westfalenstadion boasts the highest average attendance in Europe with 80,520, and its famous Südtribüne (South Stand) is the continent’s largest standing terrace, holding 24,454. During last season’s Revierderby, the noise was deafening throughout, and Schalke—battling against relegation—left with a 4-2 win after a fiery derby. Saturday’s edition, no matter how fierce it may get on the field, will not be nearly the same. The Südtribüne, which becomes the infamous “Yellow Wall” when filled with Dortmund fans, will be empty, the raucous sound replaced by an eerie silence.

Elsewhere, Bayern travel to Berlin to face Union on Sunday. Union have been this season’s overachievers, tipped by many for relegation, but who currently sit 11th, higher in the table than city rivals Hertha and 12 points clear of an automatic relegation spot. RB Leipzig—in third place, five points behind Bayern—host Freiburg, and fourth-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach travel to Eintracht Frankfurt for Saturday evening’s game, the Topspiel. They’re all huge games in a hotly contested title race that should do nothing but create excitement, or at least bring a welcome respite of normalcy. However, the circumstances mean that all are tinged with a touch of melancholy.

The Bundesliga may be back in body, but not in spirit. Its return is the latest example of an industry slowly restarting in order to secure its future survival, even if the strict precautions that have been imposed make it barely recognizable. It’s been no secret that the push for the return of the league is a decision that is financially motivated. German soccer magazine Kicker reported that playing games behind closed doors will cost clubs of the top two tiers an estimated $98 million in lost matchday revenue. But the stakes of not finishing the season at all are much more dire: Kicker also previously reported that 13 of the 36 clubs that make up the first two divisions in German soccer (including Schalke, currently in sixth place in the top tier and in a Europa League–qualifying position) faced insolvency unless the league resumed so that television contracts can be honored and revenue distributed among the clubs.

In Germany, nationwide testing of the virus began at an early stage, with high numbers. The outbreak peaked before April, with new daily cases reaching a high of 6,294 on March 28, falling earlier this week to 357, according to Google’s COVID-19 statistics. Despite the country not being under full lockdown, social distancing and “stay at home” measures have been, on the whole, well-observed, enabling German Chancellor Angela Merkel to allow the country’s 16 federal states to enact their own measures to regulate the treatment and spread of the virus. News of the relaxation, combined with a bank holiday and warm weather, saw the infection rate jump from 0.65 to just over 1 for three consecutive days, before falling once more below the critical rate of 1 this week. While this prompted some fears over a second wave, a report in The Guardian stated that “if the virus is indeed accelerating again, it is doing so from a considerably smaller and more controllable base than a month ago.”

Once the government gave the states the green light, the DFB (the German Football Association) and its subsidiary organization, the DFL (Deutsche Fussball Liga), implemented their plan to resume play. They had been waiting for the go-ahead for over a month and already had outlined a medical framework for how to proceed. Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, has shown support for the plan, saying, “[It] makes sense and could serve as a model for other professional sports.”

A number of clubs have been back in training a few weeks now, imposing social-distancing regulations in anticipation of the mid-May return. But the speed at which it has occurred has caused uncertainty among many players. Union Berlin defender Neven Subotic, formerly of Borussia Dortmund, spoke out in an interview with the BBC about the concerns he and other players had. “It’s just going to be a lot of risk management and trying to get to a finished season with the fewest casualties. I am critical of how everything’s been managed, but we understand that it’s a difficult situation for everybody. We all just want to press fast-forward and be in a situation where we don’t have to worry about it, but I think that’s unrealistic in the coming months.” Subotic went on to say, “For the clubs it’s financial, and nothing else. For us knowing that, it’s about getting the job done and trying to make the most out of it knowing well that there isn’t a lot that you can get out of it in terms of satisfaction.”

Each player will be required to fulfill a two-week quarantine period before returning to play and will be tested twice a week for the remainder of the season, which the DFL hopes to conclude by the end of June. Squads will be required to travel to stadiums in multiple vehicles as opposed to a single team bus. Staff and players will have a limited amount of time in the dressing rooms before the match and will walk out of the tunnel separately. Masks must be worn, or faces covered by those sitting on the bench and they can only be removed when giving instructions, provided that the individual is at least 5 feet away from the nearest individual.

However, it’s impossible to think that such precautions can prevent the spread of the virus entirely. The balls used in games will be disinfected at regular intervals, and players have been told not to celebrate together, nor spit. However, while zonal marking may be seen as a way of defending corners while observing social distancing guidelines, droplets will be transferred no matter what protocols are introduced.

The DFB and DFL are undoubtedly ambitious by resuming play so soon, and it will be interesting to see what happens if a player tests positive. The measures taken in such an instance will be the true test for the fragility of the plan. We’ve already seen signs of it without a game even being played. The squad and staff of second-division side, Dynamo Dresden, are currently undergoing a two-week quarantine after two players tested positive for the virus. It means Dynamo—bottom of the table—will be unable to train and will miss the first round of fixtures. Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert said the quarantine regulations were set by local authorities and stressed that the season would resume regardless. However, Dynamo will now play three games in a week on their return, putting a strain on a squad that will have been robbed of training time.

The further down the league pyramid you go, the less stable the situation seems. Sören Bertram, a striker with third-tier FC Magdeburg, said in an interview with local paper Volksstimme that he was against the return before the end of May, and that the players were “only puppets” and that they had not been consulted. Bertram also touched on the financial implications of implementing protocols designed for clubs of the top-two tiers. It was echoed by Magdeburg CEO Mario Kallnik, who estimated that completing the season would cost the club €740,000, while being unable to generate gate revenue.

With so much on the line and so little room for maneuver, it seems as though the ultimate priority for the DFL and DFB is to complete the season as quickly as possible and with as little disruption as they can. The safety of players and staff, as well as the survival of clubs, has replaced relegation, promotion, and titles as the priority for the remainder of the season. But the empty stadiums will act as a constant reminder that whoever wins the league this year, it won’t be the same. It can’t be. The very essence of what makes major sports so wonderful—the collective response to what is happening in front of your very eyes—won’t be there. But if it is to get back to how we once knew it, then this is how it will have to be, for now.

Ryan Hunn is the cofounder of Stadio and cohost of The Stadio Podcast. He is based in Berlin.