Arne Richter knows emotions will be running high against a backdrop of fear and hope amid a pandemic sweeping the world for the first time in more than a century.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” the sportswriter said from Berlin, where he is preparing to cover his first soccer game since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports around the globe. “It’s really weird and a bit frightening at the same time. But from my point of view, it’s more dangerous to go shopping in the supermarket than to go to one of these matches.”
On Saturday, the Bundesliga will become the first major professional sports league in the Western Hemisphere to resume play. It could provide a road map for the resumption of other sports, especially in North America, where officials from Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and the NFL are attempting to figure out when — or even if — they can stage their seasons.
NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy told Newsday last week that the league, which hopes to begin reopening team facilities for administrative staff in the coming days but has no immediate plans to bring players back, will closely monitor what clues the Bundesliga restart might offer about a return of American football. Other North American leagues also will be paying attention.
It will be a different world to which Richter, his media colleagues and the soccer-enthused German public return, but also a fascinating test case for how life in sports can go on in the face of the biggest health challenge since the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak.
Richter, who covers soccer for the German news agency DPA, will get his first taste of the new reality when he covers Sunday’s Union Berlin vs. Bayern Munich match, which will be televised in the United States on FS1.
“We’ve never seen something like this before, with politics and football working so close together,” Richter said of the unique partnership between the highly organized league and the German government — up to and including Chancellor Angela Merkel. “There has been a lot of coordination.”
The Bundesliga’s guidelines in a COVID-19 world are strict, with testing of the players, coaches and administrators involved in the game serving as the bedrock of the league’s planning.
Players have been in quarantine for the entire week leading up to this week’s resumption of matches. They are tested every four days, as well as before each game. Players will have been away from their families for the week leading up to this weekend’s games, after which they can return home. Referees also will be tested on a regular basis.
The initial plan was for a two-week quarantine before the resumption of play.
“With regular tests, it’s a different situation to when somebody is just tested at the beginning and end of the quarantine,” Merkel told reporters of the change.
If there is a positive test for any player, the entire team must be quarantined for two weeks. Two players from the Dynamo Dresden, a team that plays in the second division of the Bundesliga, tested positive last Friday, postponing their scheduled Sunday match against Hannover.
“We are in contact with the responsible health authorities and the league to coordinate all further steps,” Dresden sporting director Ralf Minge said after the positive tests were revealed.
All other games are still on as the league ends a two-month interruption. Newly implemented media restrictions will apply. Only 10 reporters will be allowed in the press box; many games have up to 60 media members in attendance. Reporters won’t be tested, because they will have no interaction with the players or coaches, but they must maintain social distance. There will be no postgame interview sessions, and reporters must relay any questions to the manager via the WhatsApp messaging service.
The questions will be given to the team’s media officer, who then will direct the inquiries to the manager. The only player interviews conducted will be with the television rights-holders.
The resumption of the season isn’t without controversy. Although Germany has some of the most ardent soccer fans in the world, not everyone is on board with the decision to play.
“It will have a fatal effect on the overall compliance with the restrictions,” Peter Dabrock, the former chairman of the German Ethics Council, told DPA. “If the mantra is no contact, [keep] distance, hygiene, protection, but then of all things, you allow a sport in which none of this can be adhered to from the beginning, then of course it will have the effect that people ask themselves, ‘Why do I have to stick to such restrictions?’ ”
According to Johns Hopkins University, as of Wednesday, there were 174,098 COVID-19 cases and 7,738 deaths in Germany. The infection rate has come down in recent weeks, prompting Merkel to give the go-ahead for soccer to come back.
Still, safety concerns remain. And not just among the players.
“There is a fear that fans will gather outside the stadiums, which will be a major problem with too many people getting together,” Richter said. “We had a match without fans in March before the lockdown, and after that match, thousands celebrated outside the stadium. That was seen as a bad example. So officials are saying, ‘Don’t go to the stadium’ and ‘Don’t watch in big groups.’ ”
Richter added that there is grumbling among a sizable portion of the population that professional soccer players are receiving preferential treatment.
“There are people who are not allowed to live their normal lives, but football pros are paid millions. Some people are saying, ‘They’re allowed to do their job and I’m not?’ Parents can’t go to work to take care of their children, and kindergartens aren’t even open. There is a lot of jealousy and mistrust.”
There may be similar misgivings among Americans, which is why the Bundesliga can provide some important hints of what might be in store once the United States has pro sports again.