By Andrew Warshaw
May 15 – After a two-month suspension caused by Covid-19, top-flight European football is back this weekend – under vastly different circumstances, behind closed doors and only in one country, but nevertheless a significant boost for millions of sports-starved fans across the globe.
All eyes and ears will be on Germany which will attract hundreds of thousands of new armchair recruits when the Bundesliga becomes the first of the so-called Big Five to resume playing.
Normally, the Bundesliga, while high on quality, would lack the international attraction of, say, England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A or Spain’s La Liga.
But although games will have an eerie atmosphere in empty stadiums, with only about 300 essential staff and officials attending, such is the hunger for live competitive football that interest is massive. So much so that some media organisations are offering a crash course in German football and even advice on who to support.
“With the Bundesliga as the only league to be broadcast on TV, I expect we will have an audience of a billion,” Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told SportBild magazine.
In Britain, BT Sport is showing all nine Bundesliga matches live, including the country’s fiercest derby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 which traditionally is played before an ear-splitting crowd of around 80,000.
With nine matches left, Dortmund are on 51 points, four behind leaders Bayern Munich and one ahead of RB Leipzig. “It will most certainly be the most unusual derby in history,” Dortmund’s head of pro players Sebastian Kehl said this week.
“This game lives off fans, their emotions, the intensity of the stadium. We will not experience any of that. The players will be badly missing the motivation from the atmosphere and the fans.”
The second division is also resuming this weekend, with former European champion Hamburg and Stuttgart both aiming to get back to the top flight.
Players across every game will have to abide by an ultra-strict set of health guidelines aimed minimizing the risk of infection. The German Football League (DFL) drew up a 51-page document including substitutes wearing masks and goal celebrations limited to elbow bumps. Social distancing rules must also be respected in the changing rooms and when the players come onto the pitch, handshakes are banned. Only players, match officials, first aid personnel and a small group of photographers are allowed on the pitch. In the stands only a handful of media outlets will be allowed with no press conferences.
Doubts have already surfaced after second tier Dynamo Dresden’s entire squad were quarantined following two positive tests, forcing the club’s first two games to be postponed. But when three players at Cologne tested positive, only the players affected were isolated.
“The matches will feel different,” conceded DFL CEO Christian Seifert. “After the first match-day we will all know why we prefer games with fans. But that is the framework we have to operate in, and I expect the best possible sport within this framework.”
Whilst fans’ appetites are being wetted by the return of meaningful live fixtures, albeit not in the guise we know it, football authorities everywhere will be watching intently to see if Germany, ahead of the game when it comes to dealing with Covid-19 in Europe, gets it right.
If it doesn’t, then those questioning whether it really is safe enough yet for football to return – and whether it is morally correct – will have an even louder voice.
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