February 1, 2023



Bundesliga puts its reputation on the line with return in late May | Andy Brassell | Football

5 min read

It was expected, and now it’s here. The Bundesliga will be the first of Europe’s major leagues to restart in the second half of May, with the federal government sign-off on Wednesday giving the league freedom to decide on the timetable itself. It had been signposted by the health minister, Jens Spahn, giving verbal approval to the DFL’s detailed safety and hygiene plan this week.

The devil, however, is in the detail. Spahn ended by saying that designing a plan and living it out were two different things, and that is exactly what the Bundesliga and its clubs are finding out. On Monday the DFL reported there had been 10 positive tests among 1,724 carried out, which gave credence to its claim that the screening purpose was working, “providing additional security and thus protecting the players”.

Dr Tim Meyer, the head of the DFL’s task force behind the details of the resumption plan, backed this while sounding a note of caution. “If the [necessary] discipline is not adhered to,” he said, “then even the best concept can falter.”

The Facebook Live video published on Monday by the Hertha forward Salomon Kalou was a case in point, flying in like a huge splodge of mud and landing flush on the front of the Bundesliga’s freshly laundered suit. It began innocuously enough, with the Ivorian striker filming his stroll into the club’s Schenkendorffplatz training facility, before he entered the dressing room. There, he shook hands with the striker Vedad Ibisevic and fitness trainer Henrik Kuchno, before wandering into what appeared to be a Covid-19 test being conducted on the defender Jordan Torunarigha.

It’s hardly a first for Hertha, a club “which has already gained plenty of experience in PR disasters this season”, as 11 Freunde’s Max Dinkelaker put it. Yet as a club they have largely got away unscathed from this, throwing Kalou under the bus by suspending him indefinitely and letting him take the rap alone. He is ageing, highly paid and on his way out of the club, with weeks left on his contract. Having played only 146 Bundesliga minutes this season, he is highly unlikely to be retained.

Despite fading from the first-team picture Kalou has always been considered – by club and media – a model pro, so this is a shock on more than one level. Clearly Hertha as an institution have every right to expect better of one of their senior players, who has seen and done enough at 34 to have little excuse, as the general manager, Michael Preetz, pointed out in his statement admonishing him. Preetz was keen to emphasise that everyone at the club has been reminded of the protocols but painting Kalou as the only protagonist here is flawed.

The only person to challenge Kalou in the video is the physio David de Mel, testing Torunarigha, who tells him to “please erase that”. Not “stop doing that”, but “stop potentially showing others that it’s being done”. Kalou’s fellow elder statesman, the 35-year-old Ibisevic, hardly came out of the video in a blaze of glory either.

“Are they fucking with us?” the captain asks in English – and that much of the dressing-room chat is in English has given the video exactly the sort of wider audience which Hertha and the Bundesliga could have done without – as he and Kalou compare pay slips. Hertha have clarified that the players’ complaints were over an “accounting error” rather than any objection to hiatus-related pay cuts, but it’s not a good look.

Kalou has apologised to his teammates, though a projected role as a Hertha ambassador in Africa looks to be on shaky ground. That he should not carry the can alone seems to be the view of the authorities in Berlin, with the senator Martin Pallgen telling Kicker that Hertha can expect unannounced inspections to make sure the club and its employees are complying with regulations.

With the general public – and certainly fans – divided on whether football in Germany should be pressing ahead, the implications of the scene at Hertha will linger for a greater time than the actions. If this is how one dressing room behaves, what about the other 17, or 35 if we’re counting the top two tiers? The first positive tests that came to light at the weekend, at Köln, had already created doubt in some minds, though the local health authority – which has jurisdiction in these cases, as in Berlin – had decided it was all right to carry on after the three identified with the virus were placed in quarantine.

The midfielder Birger Verstraete had told VTM back home in Belgium that he thought it was “bizarre” that the whole squad hadn’t been quarantined, although he backed down after the club challenged his view and insisted protocol had been followed. Verstraete’s worry was stoked by concern for his girlfriend, who has a heart condition and has now returned to Belgium for the time being. That players have lives, concerns and responsibilities beyond their careers is not easy to allow for in even the most comprehensive plan.

It’s not just on the pitch and in largely empty stadiums that hygiene needs to be considered. There has been a growing push for the Konferenz – the German practice of broadcasting simultaneous Saturday-afternoon fixtures in one programme that flits between the grounds – to be made free-to-air for the rest of the campaign. Some in the game clearly feel that the public broadcasters ZDF and ARD shouldn’t be potentially “freeloading”, as the former Bayern president Uli Hoeness charmingly put it in a recent interview with Kicker, even if the basic principle is widely agreed as sound.

The idea is that multiple viewers won’t crowd into front rooms of friends who are Sky customers, and though the main rights holder said in mid-March that its plan was just to present potential clients with “competitive” new offers, the Bavarian authorities (Sky is based in the Unterföhring area of Munich) are hopeful of greater accommodations to the public.

It would be a very small step towards placating those still angry with what they think of as football rushing ahead, putting financial imperatives ahead of the greater good. The Bundestag vice-president, Thomas Oppermann, wrote a guest column for Kicker this week in which he called for this tricky balance to continue to be worked on. “Football is the most beautiful thing in the world,” Opperman wrote. “We have to do a lot to keep it that way.” The reputation of the Bundesliga, with significant international reach and by going first, depends on it.

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