Firstly, many eyes across European football were rolled as the Italian football authorities struggled to make coherent decisions in a post-coronavirus world. Now, everybody is getting into the same boat. The Bundesliga, so in tune with the value of factoring in fans and of outside engagement to the product, is discovering what a scramble it is to find clarity and a united front in the eye of the storm.
“Now there is a point,” wrote Eintracht Frankfurt’s sporting director Fredi Bobic in a guest column in Kicker, “where we have to assume responsibility in management positions without precise facts and make decisions that concern the health of all of our employees, and indeed everyone involved in football. The worst part is a decision made out of clear conviction in the morning is already useless by the afternoon.”
Bobic himself went through that last week, with his club’s pledge on Wednesday that the following day’s Europa League tie with Basel would be played to an expected full house, before making a U-turn later the same day.
Like most European leagues, the Bundesliga has been reacting on the fly to the coronavirus crisis, for there is simply no other option. In the middle of last week there was no nationally unified approach across German football. On Tuesday, last Saturday’s scheduled Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke had already been arranged to be played behind closed doors (no small decision given the dimensions of the occasion and a potential €5m loss of matchday revenue), Union Berlin released a statement that said after consultation with Berlin’s municipal authorities, their game against Bayern Munich would go ahead with fans present.
By Wednesday that advice had evolved, forcing Union to change tack and announce the game would be behind closed doors. Later in the same day was a historical first for the Bundesliga, with its first-ever game behind closed doors (Geisterspielen, ghost games, as they’re referred to) – a Rhine derby between Borussia Mönchengladbach and Köln.
As Gladbach squeezed to a 2-1 win there were all the appropriate pantomimes. Breel Embolo celebrated his opening goal by mock-cupping his ears. At full-time, having been stymied in their chase for an equaliser, Mark Uth dropped to his haunches and Jorge Meré pulled his shirt over his face in frustration. None of it felt right. Rather than explain contested decisions, referee Deniz Aytekin lamented an evening that was anything but an occasion to the Sky cameras. “It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “Something is missing, and it’s [a] massive [loss]. The passion isn’t there. It’s tough to concentrate.”
It was at that point that alarm bells started ringing for the authorities, too. With a group of Gladbach ultras estimated in excess of 2,000 turning up outside Borussia-Park, despite the stadium being out of town, and demanding to celebrate with their players at full-time, it was starting to become clear that limiting public gatherings would require games to be postponed, rather than to be just played without fans, in scenes reflective of those in the Champions League at Valencia and Paris.
Further upstairs, it seemed to be taking a little longer for the message to get through. As late as Friday afternoon, the Deutsche Fußball Liga’s official plan was to play all of Matchday 26 – up to and including Monday night’s match between Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen – behind closed doors before starting a hiatus afterwards. This was despite the unease of many of the main protagonists, including Bayern’s Thiago Alcântara, who had made clear his exasperation in a mid-morning tweet. “This is crazy,” wrote the midfielder. “Please stop fooling around and land on reality.”
As in other territories, the big decisions were essentially taken out of the hands of the authorities. Paderborn coach Steffen Baumgart started showing symptoms of possible infection ahead of his team’s Friday night game at Fortuna Düsseldorf, while local authorities in Bremen had become deeply concerned about the possibility of fans gathering outside the Weserstadion – à la Gladbach, but possibly in even greater numbers – for Werder’s game with Leverkusen.
Certainly Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s declarations in the Bayern press conference to preview the Union game, alongside Hansi Flick, didn’t age well either. “At the end of the day, it’s about finances and the big outstanding TV payments to the clubs,” he had said. “I think it’s right that, under the current conditions, this weekend’s games take place.” Equally Dortmund’s Hans-Joachim Watzke upset some by admitting on Sunday’s Sportschau that he would have been in favour of the games going ahead to limit losses.
Yet when Uli Hoeness, who described football’s scheduling dilemmas as “the smallest problem, when doctors in Italy have to make decisions about life and death because they cannot assign a ventilator to every patient,” is the voice of calm and compassion, you know these are unusual times. Bobic wrote in his Kicker column about a series of complex, “sometimes very contradictory discussions” in the lead-up to the plug eventually being pulled, with the usual diverse points of view and priorities coming up against a series of unprecedented immovables.
As various ways forward were floated, including the possibility of a 22-team top-flight with four promoted teams and no relegation, the constant was finding a way of softening the forthcoming financial blows. It may be considered beyond vulgar given the global situation, but the administrators of the game have to deal with financial reality, and making sure there is a game (and clubs) to come back to. The last instalment of the season’s TV rights money – some €304 million – is due to the clubs of the country’s top divisions in May. Delay or withholding the payment of the €34 million due to Bayern, for example, would undoubtedly sting. The failure of clubs at the other end of the spectrum, like Sandhausen or Aue, to bank their dues of just over €2 million could have even more serious effects.
In the forthcoming days and weeks sides, attitudes and preconceptions must flex. Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp, the target of continued disdain and defiance from fan groups in recent weeks, has been nationally praised after his company CureVac stonewalled Donald Trump’s attempts to pay for exclusive rights to any eventual coronavirus vaccine. The anger of those supporters towards Hopp has always been entirely separate from the other facets of his business life – nobody has denied his extensive philanthropy and work for cancer patients – but this latest development does underline his status as one of the most complex characters in the German game.
As for the ultras, many groups have called for unity and, in some cases, put their campaigning skills to great use by fundraising for Italian emergency workers (see tweet below). Yet they too already have their view on the possible way forward. The cross-club fan alliance Unsere Kurve released a statement on Monday in opposition to further Geisterspielen. “It must not be that public life is shut down, but professional football continues to try to maintain a pseudo-reality by all means necessary,” it said.
German football has always been a breeding ground for healthy debate and while unity is important, so will be the right to continuing expressing a point of view. “Sport can again play an important role in society,” wrote Bobic. ”To provide variety across the country, to provide subjects that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.” That is something not insignificant to hang on to.