By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 24, 2020) US Soccer Players - Amid the death, danger, and disruption wreaked by the global coronavirus pandemic, the suspension of live sports has become one more disappointment. Certainly not the top priority or greatest loss, but a psychological casualty that drives home the reality of our current crisis. Along the way, sports have become a kind of litmus test for everyone's hopes of returning to something like normalcy, as leagues and federations search for ways to return to competition safely.
The top two divisions of the German Bundesliga appear on course to be the first major professional soccer leagues to do so. Teams have already been back in training for some time now ahead of a hoped-for resumption of match play as soon as May 9, in empty stadiums for the foreseeable future. There are nine rounds of league play remaining in the top flight, with Bayern Munich four points ahead of 2nd-place Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Bayer Leverkusen not far behind.
A federation task force led by the Germany national team's doctor is building a comprehensive plan for doing so, with levels of detail that fit the traditional stereotypes of Teutonic orderliness. The aim is to maintain physical distancing in locker rooms and concourses, limit players' exposure to virus vectors of all kinds, and test extensively for COVID-19 throughout, though officials maintain that it would require only 0.4% of the nation's testing capacity. It goes as far as directing that players wash their own kits.
It's possible that players would be quarantined in hotels for the duration of the 2019/20 season's rescheduled slate, or even wear masks and gloves during play to limit the risk of germ transmission. Nothing is certain yet, with soccer authorities deferring to their government counterparts. Much will hinge on a meeting of chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders on April 30.
“We need to be flexible,” DFL head Christian Seifert said this week. "It's down to the decisions of the politicians. All we can do is to provide a concept with sensible precautions and preparations, relative to the security of players. If it's not seen as sufficient right now, we will accept it. But then there's a chance that the Bundesliga could be part of the collateral damage of the coronavirus."
There's no escaping the reality that this would make the Bundesliga's large contingent of US players and their peers into guinea pigs to one extent or another. With everyone involved feeling the pain both spiritual and financial of a month without games, and the German government enjoying high approval ratings for their handling of the pandemic, it seems they're ready to give it a shot.
"Football would submit to almost all the rules necessary to play," Bayern and Germany star Thomas Muller told Bild this week.
German federation officials appear to be taking a transparent approach in admitting that money is a factor in resuming the action. Seifert framed the return to play as crucial for the survival of a handful of topflight clubs and as much as half of the 2.Bundesliga. Meanwhile, this season's four UEFA Champions League participants are paying millions of Euros into a solidarity fund for lower-division and women's sides. Several television rights-holders will make payments next month to help clubs despite the recent lack of live broadcasts.
Everyone involved admits that soccer without fans, dubbed "ghost games" in Germany, is a pale facsimile of the full spectacle we all know and love, particularly in the fan-friendly, community-oriented Bundesliga. A council of supporters groups has ripped the new plan as "an insult to society, and in particular to those fighting COVID-19 on a daily basis." Those of such a mind may well turn out in numbers to protest the ghost games and, in doing so, violate bans on large gatherings.
That's an understandable if somewhat strident stance, and may reflect the stigma attached to playing behind closed doors as a punishment doled out by governing bodies. That said, many of us confined at home are missing the beautiful game badly enough to watch just about any version of it, especially if there's any degree of confidence that it's only a temporary measure until the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Even games in quiet, empty stadiums could become beacons of hope as the world around us shifts in such profound and frightening ways.
The rest of the world will surely be watching this closely as a test case. What no one can be totally sure of is just how fragile plans like the Bundesliga's are when it comes to preventing the virus from being spread at the matches. Then there's the key factor at work here, TV money. Big broadcast deals make it worth the while for bigger clubs and leagues to get back on the pitch quickly. Smaller leagues that depend primarily on gameday revenue generally can't afford to play without crowds.
It's often said that soccer reflects culture around the world, and so it appears to be in this case. With a trained scientist in charge of the country and proactive measures like aggressive testing and research to control its outbreak, Germany has a low mortality rate from COVID-19 and high levels of trust in its government and institutions. Those are the same factors that could help the Bundesliga get going again.
Other countries without similar measures in place may struggle to follow that model. If you miss sports and hold the belief that a firewall should separate them from politics, the next few months may test those convictions.
More from Charles Boehm:
- US Soccer makes striking retreat from the youth development space
- Remembering what made the boys of ‘94 so special for MLS
- The 2020 US Open Cup and a test of US Soccer's will
- Training in a pandemic: How social distancing is testing soccer’s top sports scientists
Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press - ISIPhotos.com