LONDON — The eyes of the soccer world will be on Germany next Saturday.
After weeks of planning and nervous negotiations, the Bundesliga has finally been cleared to return, the first of soccer’s major leagues to try and mount a comeback from coronavirus-induced global sporting stoppage.
There is certain to be outsized interest in the games from both soccer fans, who have been left with precious little to watch, and sporting officials, who are hoping that the German experiment will prove that games can be played safely in the face of a global pandemic.
For true die-hards, there have been games to watch — leagues in Belarus, Burundi, Nicaragua and Tajikistan have played on, for instance — but the Bundesliga’s return on Saturday May 16 will offer a glimpse of what top level sport will look like in these unusual times.
Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the league the go-ahead to resume play, and the games will be the first test of a detailed set of safety protocols the Bundesliga has put in place. The success or failure of the German model may determine the fates of other sports leagues and major events that have been left in limbo worldwide.
The league’s management hustled to set the schedule as soon as approval was granted for the games to start in the middle of May, part of a wider announcement about easing nationwide restrictions. By Wednesday night, after training for a month, the 18 clubs in Germany’s top division received letters informing them when things would start.
The names on the field may be recognizable, but the same cannot be said for the just about anything else related to the match. Each team will be quarantined together in a hotel before the first round of games, and they will be tested for the virus. As the season goes on, the players will be tested at least twice a week until the matches are completed.
The games will then be played at empty stadiums, or as “ghost games” as they are referred to in German, a situation that Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga chief executive officer, acknowledged was not ideal. “In a crisis, threatening the very existence of some clubs, however, it is the only way to keep the leagues in their current form.”
Access to the stadiums will be strictly limited to a maximum of 300 people, including game officials, support staff and broadcast media. The players from home teams will drive themselves to the stadiums in their own cars, and representatives from the visiting teams will be split into small groups to travel in designated vehicles that will be disinfected after each use.
Players will dress in several different locker rooms, be kept apart from substitutes and shower separately.
There are no guarantees of success. Until Merkel gave her blessing, there were doubts about whether the league would be allowed to complete the season.
Just a couple of days before clearance was granted, the league confirmed that 10 people from a pool of more than 1,700 players from Germany’s top two leagues tested positive for coronavirus and had been isolated.
The same day, Hertha Berlin said it had indefinitely suspended a forward, Salomon Kalou, after he posted a video on Facebook from the team’s training ground in which he could be seen breaching a number of the protocols, shaking hands with teammates and appearing to disrupt a coronavirus test.
The biggest early test of the league’s plans will probably come when Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, two intense rivals, meet in the first round of games.
Fans of both teams typically congregate in large numbers before and after the matches, and even though the game will be played behind closed doors, there are concerns that supporters could show up outside Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park.
The regional police union had expressed strong opposition to the restarting the season, expressing concern last month that “ghost games can also attract thousands of football fans,” even if those fans cannot gain entrance to the match.
A few hundred Borussia Mönchengladbach supporters showed up in March for its victory over a local rival, Cologne, the only Bundesliga match played behind closed doors before the season was paused.
For German soccer, and the leagues beyond it, there is more than the sporting integrity of a completed season at stake. Seifert warned of a grim financial picture if the season did not restart, saying that as many as one-third of the teams in the top two divisions were at risk of insolvency, estimating losses of around 750 million euros, or more than $800 million.
That figure, largely based on the loss of television revenue, is lower than the estimates for losses in England and Spain’s top leagues, where top officials are plotting ways to return with protocols closely resembling those in Germany.
“The return of the Bundesliga is great news for the football industry and marks the way for the staggered return of football that will not be complete until the return of fans to stadiums,” said Javier Tebas, chief executive of Spain’s La Liga.
The Bundesliga is determined to finish up by June 30, the date when player contracts currently expire. Even though FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has provided guidelines for extending agreements between players and clubs, there is the threat of legal challenges by players and agents who are out of contract or who have agreed to move to other teams for more lucrative salaries.
The tight deadline to complete the season will require teams to play two games a week, and staff and players to undergo thousands of tests. One error, let alone a spate of positive cases, could force the season to be abandoned, and the repercussions would be felt well beyond Germany’s borders.