Saturday, 16th May 2020, 15:30 hrs German time. The point in time at which the German Soccer Bundesliga was intended to have the final match day of the entire 2019/20 season. Now, it is the match day of the restart after Covid-19 locked down the country. Nine matches to go, the Bundesliga starts again and tries to finish the Covid-19 season. No spectators in the stadiums and a quite strict hygiene and control standard plan. I feel shaken about it. To be honest, I feel it is a terrible decision. During the Covid-19 crisis, I felt I should become more political and express my opinion and also my expertise as I am working in the life insurance business. Thus, this posting is about my view about this part of our life going back to normal.
If you are really interested in the detailed concept and are comparably fluent in German, you can read the 51 page concept which shall guarantee an as limited as possible risk that professional soccer players are getting in touch with the Covid-19 virus (it is explicitly not the aim of the concept to prevent that at all). Just to give you a flavor of all the rules in there, here is a selection of rules:
The players, but also the managers, physios and other kind of staff and people around the team are tested regularly (pages 3 to 8)
The stadium is split into three zones, the interior area, the stands and the stadium ground. In neither of these zones more than 100 people are allowed (page 10)
There are only at most three photographers per match and ten additional members of press. There is no catering (and similar limitations, pages 12 to 14)
The teams enter the ground separately: There is no handshake. During the equipment control before the match, the referee assistant has to wear a face mask. Only the active players and the referees (not: fourth referee) do not have to wear a face mask. No external catering is allowed. (pages 25 to 29)
The players may not have a meal together during training. They have to stay quarantined together the last seven days before the season incepts. The players have to put their clothing to the washing machine on their own or clean their sports gear and shoes by themselves. The kit manager needs to wear protective gear while operating with these items (pages 38/39).
When at home, the players are not allowed to have contact to people outside their household. They must not have visitors or use public transport. These rules apply for all people in the household. You shall do shopping as few times as possible. It should never be done by the player itself. (page 43)
In general, the rule is applying for all German professional leagues. With that concept, the DFL (Deutsche Fussball Liga – German Premier League) tries to ensure that the league is even finishing within the official closing of the season, end of June. The first match day after the Covid-19 break is, as said, next Saturday, 16th May 2020. There are two match days during the week – all other matches take place on the weekend. The season finishes on 27th June 2020. There is however no exact assignment to the exact days and times yet, apart from the first match day next weekend. Second Bundesliga is roghly playing according to the same match schedule, finishing their season on Sunday, 28th, according to the current schedule.
And what about the Refs?
Just now, when I am completing the final words of this posting, the referees likely receive their initial test results. In Germany, there are (officially) no professional referees, which means that the umpires still have an ordinary job. There were a couple of regulations for the referees as well, but overall, they could be a weak spot in the context. The Bundesliga has spotted this issue as well, referees may umpire matches of clubs in their own region (which is typically not allowed) and in worst case of a late positive test, referee assistants may lead the matches.
It just did not work as desired…
Already before the first match day, there was a bunch of problems.
Before the teams went back to team training a number of players were tested positive on Covid-19. The first club to confirm Covid-19 cases was 1. FC Cologne (2 players, 1 staff member), Overall ten out of 1724 pre-team training tests (both divsions) were positive, only a few names have been disclosed. In that way, the concept seemed to have worked out well – though the infection rate of 0.5 per cent of the people compared to 0.02 per cent in whole Germany at that day was comparably high (even if you take a high number of unknown cases into account). The people were individually quarantined.
1. FC Cologne was the main actor of another early big Covid-19 story as well. After the positive Covid-19 cases have been disclosed, midfielder Birger Verstraete stated in an interview with the Belgian VTM (Belgian newspaper article in Dutch), that under these circumstances he is not too motivated to play soccer. One key reason is that his girlfriend is having a heart defect. He had to take back some of his comments, which lead to quite a lot of criticism among the Cologne fans towards his club, who supported their player in this situation.
The key “scandal” of the pre-season has definitely been caused by Hertha BSC Berlin‘s player Salomon Kalou, who used Facebook Live to broadcast from the Berlin cabin. This time, you definitely do neither need to speak German or Dutch to find numerous violations against social distancing: players being too close together, no separation in the cabin, hand-shaking, too many people in the physio room. There were also quite some people who mentioned that the PCR test (Covid-19 test) you see in the video has been done incorrectly and thus very likely automatically leads to a negative result. Kalou was suspended from the team, there was surprisingly no penalty against the club, though.
On 9th May, i.e. at a point of time at which the teams already trained as a team, 2nd Bundesliga team Dynamo Dresden stated two positive Covid-19 cases. As they could not somehow analyse the exact contacts of these persons, the local health authority (which is responsible for the Covid-19 handling) quarantine the whole team and staff for two weeks – which also means that Dresden will at least miss two scheduled matches and also will not be able to train together during that period. In the Sachsen state, in which Dresden is located, the incidences are significantly lower than in the German average.
A week before the first match day, Borussia Mönchengladbach boarded the quarantine hotel on Monday, not on Saturday, which would have been seven days before their first match at Frankfurt. There haven’t been any sanctions on the club.
Especially the Berlin video made me think. This concept puts the key actors under a lot of pressure – you have to be extremely disciplined to keep that hygienic concept by the DFL soccer league. The key argument for the Bundesliga to continue was that it is the players’ profession – but can they act professional all the time in this situation? We all get emotional here and then in Covid-19 times – so does a million Euro salary allow them to “sell” their mental situation? I don’t think so.
Soccer Bundesliga is just a Business
Stop being romantic! Continuing the Bundesliga is not at all about sports. The fan does not count, he is just the cash cow which is giving the money (by watching games and thus consuming ads etc.). We are talking about a business decision only. Maybe the most exposed person in this discussion was Hans-Joachim Watzke, Business Executive of Borussia Dortmund. Already in very early points of the discussion, his statements were like “If we cannot play soon again, the whole Bundesliga will drown”. It is hard to judge from outside which contractual structures and risks the Bundesliga is economically and legally exposed to. To me, it sounds a bit like hubris and bad risk management. There are just limited reserves in case a season cannot be completed, the clubs are heavily dependent on the money they majorly generate from TV and marketing deals.
Maybe also the easiest way to generate money in the past, i.e. by selling players to other clubs before their contract expires, will likely become more difficult in Covid-19 times. Hard to exactly the key drivers for this massive fear and economic panic from outside, but it must be massive enough that the Bundesliga is risking their highest value: credibility. I am a fan of the Cologne team (though I have to admit that my last stadium match is quite a while ago…) – but if a club really busts economically, the underlying youth teams are still there, the stadium is still there – so there is always a huge potential to grow a new professional team at the same location. If the credibility of the league gets bust, soccer may be hit much harder.
Soccer is a Social Factor
One reason why I struggle with the decision of playing the Bundesliga again most is that there are not just 22 ordinary people on the pitch once a week who just do their jobs – like a baker, a waitress or a craftsman. They are idols, they are sending out a message to their followers. In the age of social media, they more or less do it permanently.
What is the message that the Bundesliga is sending out to Germany now? That soccer players are more important than bar tenders (and, of course, more important than any other professional sportsman in the country)? That you can beat a pandemic if you just invest sufficient money? I don’t feel people want to have that message now – and I don’t feel that parents currently do not want to explain their kids why they cannot go to their sports training, but the big stars allowed to play. Yeah, soccer is something like distraction, it is a piece of normality. But we are not in a normal world nowadays. I could even imagine that people feel more frustrated when they see the matches, because they are struggling with low payments from halted jobs they receive from the social care in the country. We just don’t need more people on the streets who demonstrate. And you could easily say that this is not only a German, but also a European decision.
No Superheros now, please!
This is not superhero-time at the moment. Some political leaders might know what I mean. We are having “standing that together” right now – now matter whether you are lucky like myself and can do your job from home or whether you terribly struggle because Covid-19 costed you your job or a lot of money. In a certain way, I am thankful to Kalou posting this video – at least he showed that in these moments his club was not a Superhero Squad at all… Including himself.
Just the Last Chapter to make it more ridiculous…
… at least in my point of view. So far, I just wrote about the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga. In fact, the whole DFL plan is also meant to be applied to two more leagues, the (Men) Third Division (“3. Liga”) for Men as well as the Flyeralarm Women Bundesliga. Both divisions are thought to maybe restart at the end of May, but this feels to become really chaotic.
A part of the Third Men Division teams do not want to play and still stop the season, with different thoughts what this would mean for relegation and promotion. Some teams state that the hygienic concept is too expensive and complex (which might tell something about their structure). The most significant issue, however, is that due to their local Covid-19 regulations, three teams, Halle, Magdeburg and Jena, are currently not even allowed to train as a team and thus would not have any opportunity to prepare for these first matches. It feels bizarre if you read suggestions like that they should move their team temporarily to another location for training and match days so that they are ready for competition. Münster already stated that they cannot fulfill the concept, as their doctors work on voluntary basis and have their own offices as well – so they cannot drop those to do soccer hygiene full-time.
Soccer for 800 people per Match included
In case you do not know the predecessor of Flyctory.com, sport-live.net, I should likely state that I was a huge supporter of women soccer and invested a lot of time and money into it over several years. I still have friends who play up to high national and international level or work in the top teams management.
But, overall, the most laughable fact about the professional soccer restart is that the DFL also pushed to include the Women Bundesliga to the restart plans. Just to give you an idea about what it means: the 3rd Men Division I wrote about had an average audience of roughly 8,700 people per match (see here). The players are undoubtedly professionals in it. The average for the Women Bundesliga this season, however, is about 900 only (see here). Even the most-visited team, VfL Wolfsburg, has a lower average than the worst team in that statistics of the “3. Liga”.
The Ladies are the Ultimate Special Treatment Proof
Women soccer had its audience in Germany in the early 2010’s, when Germany hosted the Women World Cup in 2011 and some matches went up to more than 50,000 spectators. The Women Bundesliga lost more and more importance the last years, only very few girls are fully professional players – thus, adding life support to that product is absolutely miserable to me. Making the ladies play is neither a step towards normality nor allowing the actors of 12 clubs to follow their profession – they do it during daytime already. The German Football Association DFB failed to take the right actions turn the Women Bundesliga into a fully professional league with adequate salaries ten years ago. The 300,000 Euro, which each club received from the DFL to continue this season will not change that status.
I have to say that I am very proud of my club, Cologne, that they were the only club who voted with abstention for these plans – voting against it would have been much more appropriate, though. To me, pushing the Women Bundesliga to be played is the final proof that soccer got that final treatment from politics that all the other professional sports did not receive. I feel that German politics made a great job during Covid-19 and everybody would have taken wrong decisions here and there in this situation – but this one is a big one. It is just too easy to use this decision against democracy and in order to increase frustration among the people. Here is a dedicated posting about the Women Bundesliga Re-Start, which took place on 29th May 2020.
If people feel to be treated unequally when they switch on the TV on 16th March 2020, afternoon, I can – unfortunately – fully understand that.