We had an inkling considering the empty Borussia-Park. Mark Uth’s outside the box shot in the 80th minute of Cologne’s 2-1 loss to Borussia Monchengladbach on March 11th was the last goal before the Bundesliga suspended its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gladbach manager Marco Rose, who once described his pressing philosophy as “emotional,” said after the win that playing behind closed doors “just isn’t the football that we want.” Leave it to the German language to have a name for matches without fans - Geisterspiele - described as ghost games in the absence of supporters.
More than two months later, the Bundesliga is set to resume its season with nine matches remaining for each club, all as ghost games. Though sports fans and officials throughout the world will be watching with a mixture of restrained excitement and anxiety, as the completion of the nine match days is not a guarantee. Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert reminded the footballing world that every weekend of competition is a privilege. Seifert described the Bundesliga as “playing on parole and every match day is a chance to prove that we deserve the next one,” where the final prize is the ability to conclude the 2019-20 season on the field.
Do you remember the last match you watched live on television, pre-pandemic? The past two months of sporting emotions ranged from the initial fear, to the impossibility of playing matches due to health considerations, to fleeting moments of optimism as we waited for our lives to return to what was once normal. The Bundesliga’s restart is a step in the fantasy that we’ve overcome the worst. We can wonder about the motivation for players to return to the field in the face of risk. Is it mostly about finances as well, or is there an awareness of their role in fulfilling a societal norm?
As if there wasn’t enough risk in restarting the season, there is an added global sporting angle. Leagues around the world will be analyzing the Bundesliga’s return for logistical and public relations insights. It is appropriate that the Bundesliga would be the first major league to return due to its forward-thinking, innovative reputation. How German soccer unfolds over the next several weeks could influence the sports schedule for the rest of this summer at the very least. The NBA said it would be studying the Bundesliga to determine a way to restart its own season.
“As a fan, no. As a business person, yes,” said Mark Cuban on whether he would be paying attention to Germany this weekend.
The Bundesliga announced that it would need 25,000 tests to complete the season (the NBA put that number around 15,000 tests). There have been setbacks before we even got to the matches, with two Dynamo Dresden players testing positive and sending their entire team into quarantine. The schedule pushed on regardless. Likewise, Adam Silver stated that all parties would have to get comfortable with games continuing despite positive tests. The 2020 sports season will finish more by force than nuance.
This is a matter of existence and survival, after all. Seifert estimated that not finishing the season would cost the league over $800 million, bankrupting a third of German clubs within the top two divisions. That urgency was echoed by Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, who added that there would be no Bundesliga left if they could not finish the season. The very fabric of the German game was at stake as many questioned whether it was time to update its defining 50+1 fan ownership model. Perhaps now was the moment for Germany to embrace billionaire owners who could assume larger financial risk.
Many leagues discussed repairing its inner workings during the suspension, especially on the topic of financial sustainability amid skyrocketing player wages and television fees. Seifert seeded the possibility of adding a salary cap, though he refused to debate the 50+1 model that defines much of the Bundesliga’s fervent supporter atmosphere. The only reason why one supporters’ group is not further protesting the restart is so that clubs can survive. Eintracht Frankfurt sporting director Fredi Bobic flipped the idea on its head in asking supporters to stay away from stadiums so teams don’t get punished with a points deduction. His words remain grounded in community, that an individual supporter can still have a role in their club, even in isolation.
The future of this Bundesliga season comes down to a simple equation, according to Seifert: if you do not have the virus, you cannot spread the virus. Therefore, German supporters “must do all [they] can do to avoid getting the virus.”
“The whole situation is like before a tournament. We have had a short break followed by a relaxed build-up and a more sharp preparation. These nine games are like the Euros, and we want to win them,” recontextualized Julian Nagelsmann about the stoppage in play.
Lost in the discussions of ethics and morals are the remaining stakes of the season. Bayern top Dortmund by four points on top of the table. Two points separate Leverkusen and Monchengladbach for the final Champions League position, with one point separating Schalke, Wolfsburg, and Freiburg for the final European place. For the usual contrived discussion of how athletes are able to flip a switch once a match begins, we’ll see if sporting competitiveness can overcome the fear and trauma of the past two months. We may have to temper our expectations. Union Berlin defender Neven Subotic admitted that “it’s just going to be a lot of risk management and trying to get a finished season with the fewest casualties.”
Yet the Bundesliga is taking notice of their moment on the international stage. Karl-Heinze Rummenigge exclaimed that “billions” of viewers will be watching the league, and that matches will be an advertisement for Germany and its politics. Every Bundesliga match will be shown in the UK, built upon 10 hours of coverage throughout the weekend. Seifert outlined his strategy for growing the Bundesliga in the United States last year, including leaving Fox to sign a streaming deal with ESPN+. Seifert himself is an example of crisis management. Described as a “billion dollar dealer,” he was brought in to increase the value of the Bundesliga on a global level. No one would have desired or planned for a pandemic, but for the next several weeks at least, the soccer television stage belongs solely to Germany.
Maybe players will view restarting the season as an opportunity to escape the world for 90 minutes at a time. But debates of whether Dortmund could overtake Bayern for the title, that consumed us months ago, are insignificant now. How will we even treat a title winner this season? Those public celebrations of a team riding through the city on top of a bus seem impossible not only this year, but even into next season. Perhaps the future is in celebrating titles through congratulatory tweets, from the safe distance of digital spaces. Though the prize this season in safely playing out nine more match days is in the symbolism, not just for German football, but also for the rest of the sporting world.