The historic is about to become the everyday in Germany. As it stands, the derby between Borussia Mönchengladbach and Cologne – the last Bundesliga match played before the shutdown – is the only Geisterspiel (“ghost game”, without fans) ever to have taken place in the top flight. Whenelite German football resumes at some point in May, as now seems inevitable, this unique spectacle will become just the tip of an echoey iceberg.
The Bundesliga is set to become the first elite European league to restart following the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown, and the CEO of the German league (DFL), Christian Seifert, has said the league is ready to get going as soon as 9 May.. Though it seems the governing body’s preference was to begin a week or two later, they have made it clear they will be guided by “what the politicians decide.”
Angela Merkel is scheduled to meet with the 16 leaders of the country’s federal states on 30 April. The outcome of those talks will be crucial to the Bundesliga having a plan that can be rolled out with national consensus, so we will have clarity sooner rather than later. In terms of how, rather than when football will return, we are most of the way there already.
A DFL task force has already been put into action, led by the German national team physician, Dr Tim Meyer. It will plan every last detail of safety and hygiene, leading on from the clubs’ training programmes into matchdays. For the games, there will be strict controls, with just over 300 people present in the stadium. This includes 98 in the “interior” (players, coaching and medical staff), 115 in the stands (including media) and 109 more within the stadium perimeter (security, TV production staff).
Press conferences will be held virtually and sinks will be installed at regular intervals in working areas. The task force has also designed an 18-point plan to cover best practice on away trips, which includes banning players from communal buffets or wellness areas, directing them not to touch elevator buttons – elbows have been suggested as an alternative to the index finger– and even designating an optimal temperature and humidity level for the players’ rooms.
Regular testing will also be key in a nation which has “flattened the curve” of coronavirus more successfully than many of its European neighbours, via the means of mass testing. There has been some disquiet over whether testing players is really a priority during a pandemic, and the Bundesliga has been acutely conscious not to be seen to be receiving preferential treatment. Seifert is keen to emphasise that football will account for “only 0.4%” of nationwide test capacity.
Seifert struck a conciliatory tone in his press conference which followed Thursday’s meeting on how to proceed. The German league’s chief said he understood those who would oppose the DFL’s drive to resume, even if for “purely emotional reasons because it just doesn’t feel right.” At the same time, he didn’t attempt to duck the financial motivations behind the current plans. The resumption, Seifert said starkly, was “the only way to keep the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga alive”.
Some have called this scaremongering, particularly given recent progress made in talks between the DFL and the Bundesliga’s domestic TV rights holders. The season’s final tranche of €304m (£265m) due had been in doubt after games stopped, but an agreement appeared to take the pressure off. The main rights holders, Sky, and public broadcasters ZDF and ARD, agreed to pay the bulk of the outstanding payment, albeit with a slight delay. Seifert also confirmed on Thursday that a deal had been reached with two other broadcast partners, Dazn and Eurosport.
It is the lack of gate receipts that will leave clubs feeling the pinch. Schalke wrote to their fans a few weeks ago and asked them to consider waiving refunds for the remainder of their season tickets which they won’t be able to use. This was to ensure the continued “financial health” of the club; fans who do so have been offered a special commemorative jersey in return. This is the club with the seventh-highest average attendance in European football – and the presence of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in the six above them underlines just how much matchday is part of the Bundesliga, financially as well as in terms of personality.
The DFL’s conservative estimate was that four top-flight sides and up to half of the 18-team second division faced the possibility of bankruptcy if the season didn’t restart by June. The hope is that stadiums will be full again next season, with the Bundesliga reclaiming its full allure. Seifert is keen to have clubs take responsibility for future-proofing, imploring them to not include gate receipts for “January, February or March” in their budgets going forward, in case a second wave of Covid-19 requires a stoppage next season.
Many fans are deeply unhappy about the prospect of the Bundesliga resuming in empty stadiums. Fanszenen Deutschlands, a nationwide union of ultra groups, is no stranger to criticising German football’s business model, and didn’t hold back when rejecting the whole Geisterspiele concept. “It’s an insult to society,” the group said in a statement, “and in particular to those fighting Covid-19 on a daily basis. Professional football has long been sick and should still be in quarantine.”
Seifert encouraged clubs to open dialogue with those supporters but once again made the governing body’s stance clear. Back in March, a few thousand Gladbach fans gathered outside Borussia-Park to celebrate their derby win, on the same night PSG supporters congregated at the Parc des Princes after their Champions League win over Dortmund. Seifert suggested that mass gatherings of fans could lead to matches being abandoned, with a 2-0 defeat imposed on the offending club.
With swathes of the continent, and the world, eager to be reunited with football even on limited terms, the heightened prospect of the Bundesliga’s return might be beguiling. Yet beyond the headlines of imminent dates, more compromise on all sides is still required to make it work out.