Is Germany Ready to cope with the pressure of the world’s collective eyes on them? What does this mean for the fans of the Bundesliga, football, and sport? Moreover, what would the success of the Bundesliga season mean for sport in our society post COVID-19. These are just some of the heated questions that Alankrith Shankar is trying to answer through this article.
Amidst the state of global emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sport has been dearly missed. Ever since February 2020, since the virus started to spread like wildfire, steadily affecting the world, we saw the start of nationwide lockdowns and social distancing. This spelt the end of live sporting action. Unfortunately for sporting fans, the months of April, May, June and July are usually a festival of sport. Cricket fans all over the globe usually have the biggest carnival in the sport to lookout for – The IPL. But that too, like most sporting leagues and competitions, is currently hanging on the thread of uncertainty, as the organisers, the BCCI have chosen to play the waiting game. But with the numbers and the curve far from flattening in India, it doesn’t look like there will be any cricket being played for the reasonable future. Moving on to Tennis, the Roland Garros, originally hosted in the month of May, is now suspended. Tickets have been refunded with no plans to re-issue them for a later date, though there are plans to host a shortened version later in the year, probably post the US Open. The Wimbledon, has gone a step further. Having enjoyed the prestigious status of being one of the best tennis competitions, has cancelled the 2020 edition. It’s the first time since World War Two ,that the Wimbledon has had to resort to such an extreme step. Not to forget that with this being the year 2020, there was much to look forward to for sporting fans in the summer months of June and July. Unfortunately, the Tokyo Olympics has been postponed to 2021 summer. The Euros have also been sentenced to a similar fate.
As we can see, it isn’t very different for football either. It was one of the first sports to go into suspension. In the UK, every club from the very tip of the football pyramid down to the semi-pro teams at the bottom have had to stop playing. Whilst most professional clubs have been able to do Zoom training sessions and workouts, semi-pro clubs have been left worrying about their finances and their players have been left with nothing to do. With gyms closed as well, the clubs will be hoping their players have been following a COVID diet program and working out at home where possible. The suspension of football has led to extreme disappointment for clubs, pundits, broadcasters and most importantly, the fans. The months of April and May are the business end for most domestic football leagues. Teams are usually scrambling for points to save themselves from relegation or to creep in to the European cup spots. Some clubs are locking horns in a heated title race, and not to forget the finals of domestic and the coveted European cup competitions are also hosted at this time of the year. Instead, of living these games live at the stadiums, or by cracking open a cold one with friends and family, football clubs and their fans have been dealt with crushing blows. One of the most viewed football competitions in the world, The Premier League, is suspended till further notice. There is even talk of scrapping the season altogether. Just when Liverpool fans were beginning to think that it finally is their year.
The Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 in France have both been terminated. PSG have been crowned champions of Ligue 1, with Kylian Mbappe winning the golden boot, while Toulouse and Amiens received the boot to Ligue 2. This decision isn’t sitting well with the clubs and players. Cesc Fabregas who currently plies his trade for AS Monaco, believes that the league has been terminated too early, considering how some of Europe’s top leagues are still attempting to restart at a later date. Amiens and Lyon have been considering legal battle with the league, while Toulouse’s former manager Antoine Koumbare has called for a massive strike from the players and coaches, if Ligue 1 doesn’t agree to a 22 team league in 2021-22. Tensions are high for sure.
France weren’t alone in making this call. In fact, the Dutch were the first to take the harsh decision. But the Netherlands’s version appears to be more fair and logical. The Eredivisie is off for this year with Ajax being denied the winner’s trophy. There will be no relegation or promotion either. Unfortunately, to add more uncertainty, the government has thrown the commencement of the following season also in major doubt. This has undoubtedly only made things harder for the fans and the football clubs. Why have they taken this decision? Dutch epidemiologists believe a second wave is coming and the government simply doesn’t want to risk having sporting events until a vaccine is available to the public. With no clear cure or vaccine in sight, social distancing and lockdowns, coupled with strict warnings such as police records or a €400 fine, are the only modes of combat available. And it has been effective in enforcing a lockdown, that is flattening the curve. So the Dutch don’t want to change what’s working, just yet. There are plans to loosen the lockdown restrictions, but it will happen in multiple phases. Best case scenario, things in Netherlands are back to normal by late summer. Even then, it will probably be with strict social distancing norms – 1.5 metres distance between each individual when at work. Even in my wildest dreams, I can’t see how a contact sport such as football, would fit into that mould. When I spoke with some friends in Amsterdam, I came to understand that the public is itching to go out, play some football or even just watch their favourite teams play on TV, but they just have to wait until things are safer to enjoy their favourite sport.
Yet, they may have some reason to cheer, since a recent incident has led to a call for celebration. Germany, a neighbour of both France and Netherlands, has decided to restart the Bundesliga, albeit behind closed doors. Germany has been portrayed as somewhat of a success story by the media, with respect to their response to COVID-19. The numbers of deaths are far lower compared to their European neighbours. They have opened supermarkets, schools, public parks and malls, in multiple, controlled phases before The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel gave the go-ahead to restart the Bundesliga. Angela Merkel believes that there is no vaccine available in the near future, so it’s time for society, to slowly and safely adapt in a controlled manner.
Why all the positivity about the return of the Bundesliga? It marks the return of live, high quality sport. That is something worth cheering for in this torrid time. Though it may be behind closed doors, fans around the world should start getting used to this as it is likely the new normal for the foreseeable future. Although, what does this mean for Bundesliga, its fans and football fans in general?
Well, for starters, Frankfurt’s sporting director, Fredi Bobic, went on record exclusively with ESPN, to admit that it looked 50/50 at a point on whether the league will resume. But now that we have official confirmation, everyone involved in hosting a successful game will be under close scrutiny. The coach, management and the players, know their responsibilities. Safety is of prime concern for the authorities. The entire world’s population will have their eyes on the Bundesliga. To put it blatantly, its an open invitation for the world to critique even the slightest slip-ups and no one inside or outside Germany, wants a calamity. Which is why, strict actions had to be taken by Hertha Berlin, when one of their popular and experienced players, behaved rather rashly. Soloman Kalou, went live on social media to show his callous attitude towards the prescribed safety measures, as he happily went about giving High-fives to his team mates. Ultimately, he got suspended by Hertha, but his antics were just a few days before the restart announcement. Germany has cast itself under a spotlight by setting an example with the restart of the Bundesliga, and they simply can’t afford another such episode.
But here is the silver lining. If everything goes smoothly and as per plan, the Germans will be able to pass off a detailed report, containing THE plan and its guidelines to their neighbours and to world sport. Imagine if by June, we can have more football and world sport back? Germany has taken the crucial first step towards realising this dream and hopefully, the individuals involved will act responsibly and positively.
The German clubs though have acted nothing short of champions, since the news came out. And so have the fans on social media. There is a good feeling of banter amongst the social media handles of every club and the public. For instance, Die Fohlen aka Gladbach released a helpful guide for football fans who don’t usually follow the Bundesliga.
— Gladbach (@borussia_en) May 7, 2020
The Bundesliga clubs generally have a great Twitter presence. Leverkusen winning the twitter battle most of the times. So as a routine follower, I wasn’t really surprised when this picture came out. To aid general public even more, the Bundesliga has even released a helpful summary of each club and their season so far.
Picking up where we left off ?
Everything you need to know to get up to speed on your club's 2019/20 season so far ??⚽
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) May 9, 2020
There have been CRAZY tweets from some football fans though. People have sworn to never diss the league by labelling it a “farmers league” ever again. Some fans from England, went on to say that they will sit through every Bundesliga game from hereon. They didn’t care if it was FC Koln vs SC Paderborn. They are game. It created an online storm as it was trending on Twitter, globally for 2 days almost. There was a genuine lift in positivity. All this, just from a single announcement. Moreover, audiences across the globe scrambled to watch the South Korean K-League over the weekend. Imagine the possible windfall effect that can occur if the Bundesliga completes its season, hiccup free?
There’s much to look to forward to as a general fan of football. Some of my friends are really passionate about the return. This is high quality football that one gets to witness once again. And let’s not forget about the excitement of watching some of the world’s best players like Lewandowski, Neuer or Reus, alongside some of the best young talents in the sport right now, like Zakaria, Davies, Havertz, Nkunku, Sancho, Olmo, Haaland and Gnabry. It is simply uncontainable. As a fun exercise within my friend’s WhatsApp group, I ran a poll to see who’s supporting who. There seems to be an overwhelming support for Monchengladbach. Which doesn’t come as a surprise to me, as Marco Rose has them playing his trademark, eye-catching football. A trip to Frankfurt isn’t an easy fixture to start the campaign after such an abrupt mid-season break, especially as they gathered steam, but I’m eager to watch how it’s going to unfold.
The competition resumes on May 16, picking up where it was suspended. Matchday-26. Which means, there is a good month of football left to be played (barring any hiccups). At least 4 clubs are still in a close and fierce title race. FC Bayern leads the pack with contenders RB Leipzig, Dortmund and Monchengladbach, all trailing them closely. The opening game is one of the fiercest fought derbies in German football. The Ruhr-Derby, which is contested between Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund. One couldn’t ask for a better game to welcome football back. There definitely is going to be awkward pressure for the players. Having played this fixture amongst hostilities and passionate fans, maybe some players might have thought that hostile atmospheres, was the worst thing to play in front of. How wrong could they have been? The stadiums sure are empty, but an 80,000 seater stadium has now taken the shape of the entire world’s eyes. The hopes of seeing more sport rests on their shoulders. PLUS, you have to do well to take home the bragging rights. And for Dortmund, 3 points means staying in the title race. There is going to be a whole different level of pressure on them this time round.
FC Bayern fans like me, have to wait an extra day to see our club face off against current hipster boys, Union Berlin. Recently promoted, the Iron Union as they are called, have played some attractive football and have always turned up against the big boys including a well-deserved win against an in form Monchengladbach. Nevan Subotic, a Bundesliga stalwart, arrived at the club this season and added necessary experience. He will be key alongside Yunus Malli and Swede hitman, Andersson if the Iron Union wants to take any points off Die Roten. But Bayern have had sort of rebirth under Hansi Flick. Hardly put a foot wrong and they were playing probably the best football in Europe before the break. The 3-0 win at Chelsea, showed how strong they are and snatching the title off a hungry Bayern side is near impossible. Union isn’t an easy place to visit so this is going to be an exciting Sunday night. RB Leipzig are probably the lucky ones in the trailing pack, having a relatively easy home visit from SC Freiburg. Break or not, Leipzig have some exciting quality in their squad. I don’t see Nagelsmann’s side being troubled much this weekend.
All the positivity and competitiveness is good. But how are the authorities going to manage the safety? Are all fans behind this move of closed door games? Well, it’s an interesting debate. Most of the fans understand where the DFL is coming from. The league being terminated would probably not affect the financially stable clubs like FC Bayern or RB Leipzig, but the smaller clubs who rely majorly on TV money and merchandise sales would find it extremely difficult to survive. Fans get this. But there is an air of doubt around having empty stadiums. Football as a sport, is a passionate and emotional affair. And in such affairs, cutting out the fans who make the atmosphere what it is, sends out the wrong message. It’s understandable though where these opinions are coming from. Bundesliga stadiums are known for their fan culture. The games are viewed as a family affair in Germany. Everyone goes to the stadium to enjoy the game with their loved ones. While at it, they drink and they have one massive, loud party filled with murals, singing, dancing and drum beating. But in excruciating circumstances such as the one we are currently living, you can’t always get what you want. The fans will have to accept this way of life, until we can go back to the old ways.
Additionally, there is some hesitation at the moment from some fans as they believe there is bound to be excessive physical contact. Unfortunately, in a contact sport such as football, this is not avoidable. There have been reports of players being diagnosed as positive for COVID-19, like with 2. Bundesliga club, Dynamo Dresden. So the authorities have taken it upon themselves to implement strict rules. It was initially proposed that the clubs and the players be isolated for 14 days before the restart at a team hotel, which is now reduced to 7 days. Plus, the government has prescribed that every athlete be tested at least twice, towards the buildup of each game. Each squad has 25+ members. It’s about 50-60 tests on average per game, per team. The final figure for 18 teams comes to a value north of 900 per Match day. Is it actually justified to spend so many COVID-19 test kits on footballers? Should they be given such special treatment? While the audience is split over this debate, it is safe to assume that it may not be a viable option for most countries to resume sport under this amount of strictness. Imagine if the IPL had to run with such rules in a country like India, which already has major lack of healthcare for poor citizens.
Even with such strict guidelines for safety, what would one do if after the restart, a player from a team is diagnosed as positive for COVID-19? We have the live example of FC Koln. 3 players have recently been recorded as positive, but rest of the squad haven’t. The solution was to isolate those squad members alone, while the rest went about with their business, albeit under close observation. Now, this is okay as the league hasn’t restarted yet. However, imagine post the first match day, a player from one team who was on the pitch for 90 minutes, gets diagnosed as positive. Imagine the nightmare of a contact tracing exercise that would be. And what about the players who test positive? Do we just sideline them? The mental toll that would take on the athletes and the squad involved is unimaginable at present.
Yes, the Bundesliga is returning. And this has innumerable positives, and uncontrollable excitement for sporting fans across the globe. But there are still aspects that will have to be constantly evaluated after each game, if this restart experiment has to succeed. And as for the games being played behind closed doors, this a viable and in some cases, necessary option for the survival of football clubs in developed nations such as England, Italy and Spain, who will be closely watching how this experiment plays out. If it does succeed, maybe they can follow suit. This experiment is still far off the mark. We don’t know how it will pan out, but it definitely is exciting to have some sport back. And we can only hope that the probable success of the Bundesliga, opens the door for more sport to slowly trickle its way back into daily human life.
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