SOUTH KOREA and the Faroe Islands started the ball rolling, but the football world will be closely watching how Germany’s Bundesliga fares next weekend.
We want it to go well, if only because a setback – and the news of Dynamo Dresden’s isolation is a jolt to confidence – will send FIFA, UEFA and every major football association into mild panic. The people need football back, not because of selfish reasons, but for the morale-boosting effects the game gives to society. If it succeeds, we may start believing that “this too will pass”.
But we should not be surprised that Germany feels brave enough to start again. Let’s be clear, the Germans are relatively cautious people, but they live within a system that, by and large, works well and has a higher degree of community spirit and responsibility than many countries. While the British use nostalgia and symbolic signalling as a coping mechanism, Germany seeks solutions and sets strict rules. It’s a standing joke, of course, but those that know Germany accept they get things more right than wrong. Germany’s virus stats show their health system and the attitude to regular medical treatment delivers results.
We admire German football because it hasn’t entirely sold its soul and we look at their pricing system, stadiums, fan culture and atmosphere as something to aspire to. The Bundesliga is the only league with higher gates than the Premier League in the world.
There will undoubtedly be some nerves about the reintroduction of football in the Bundestag and Chancellor Angela Merkel, while acknowledging some easing of restrictions, has said there will be an emergency brake mechanism should things not go as planned.
It will be interesting to see what the public reaction will be to the opening of the gates, will, for example, Dortmund get 80,000 to see them play Schalke in the Revierderby? The first round of games covers the entire nation, from Berlin to Bremen, Leipzig to Frankfurt.
The virus has sparked discussions about the structure of German football and, in particular, whether the 50+1 rule has been an obstruction in the current climate, although advocates of the system are vehemently against any change. Clubs were getting nervous about the lack of broadcasting money during the suspension of the Bundesliga, but these worries have now eased. Like all levels of professional football, however, the virus will surely prompt a close examination of the financial structure of the game in Germany.
For the time being, the Bundesliga will go ahead behind closed doors and players will be tested weekly. The rest of Europe, indeed the world, will watch with interest.
So what of the other leading European countries? In England, it does seem to be a game of cat and mouse, with the FA refusing to call time on the Premier League, perhaps waiting for a higher power to make that decision. While others have been more decisive, such as the Netherlands and France, how much of the procrastination is because the authorities do not want to face the abuse they will get if Liverpool are denied the title and others are relegated on the back of an incomplete campaign?
Some commentators believe France may have acted too hastily and could regret announcing the season’s end, with Paris Saint-Germain awarded the title. Some clubs are in denial, while others, such as Amiens, are extremely upset at being relegated with 10 games to go.
Spain still hopes for a return in mid-June and their 20 La Liga clubs have resumed training. Real Betis have just announced that members of their squad have tested positive for the virus, joining others at Granada, Real Sociedad and Atlético Madrid. Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s players are taking a further 30% pay cut, which highlights how fragile club finances are, even at the very highest level.
In Italy, the government could yet declare the 2019-20 season is over if a medical protocol is not agreed upon soon. Clubs are set to return on May 18, but one wonders if that gives the Italian federation enough time to get the protocol agreed. In every crisis, there is an opportunity and private equity firms CVC Capital Partners and Blackstone have been eyeing possible investments in Serie A clubs.
The start of the Bundesliga may be a pivotal moment in the Coronavirus story. If it is happening too soon, the implications could be devastating for European, indeed world, football. If it works, Germany will have shown the way forward. We should wish them good luck and watch the body language as well as listen to the rhetoric.