Bundesliga clubs are increasingly optimistic they will resume the 2019-20 season within the next two weeks.
They also believe an unprecedented giveaway of free-to-air broadcasts of matches by subscription TV channels holds the key to what would be football’s most significant return to normality since the coronavirus shutdown.
On Wednesday, the German government will announce several initiatives to ease the country’s emergency restrictions. High on the agenda is the possible restart of professional football.
The German league (DFL), its FA and several regional governments have backed the top two divisions to start playing fixtures again as early as May 15.
They hope to enlist the major broadcast rights-holders, Germany’s Sky and DAZN, in support, with an undertaking to make matches available to all fans, whether or not they subscribe to the pay-channels.
A clear condition of the Bundesliga – as for elite football in most of Europe’s major leagues – returning to action will be that stadiums are empty of fans, in order to prevent possible mass infection and maintain social distancing practices that have helped combat the spread of the virus.
Making matches widely available on television would persuade public health authorities that supporters will not gather in large groups at homes where there is a Sky or DAZN subscriber, in order to watch. Such gatherings would be considered a grave risk to public health.
The influential German fans organisation Unsere Kurve issued a statement on Tuesday “asking TV companies and governing bodies to find compromises to allow free-to-air showing of matches,” to compensate for the ban on stadium access.
The broadcasters are under political pressure, too, because of the concerns that restricted access to coverage of matches could lead to private, crowded showings of games, and because of television’s position as the main economic driver of the sport.
Part of the clubs’ determination to finish the 2019-20 league season, which was suspended in March with 90 matches still to play, is financial.
If the season is not completed, a portion of the income banked from lucrative broadcast-rights deals will have to be refunded, leaving many smaller clubs vulnerable.
The current domestic broadcasting deal, which covers the first and second tier of the Bundesliga, is worth close to €1.2 billion (Dh4.79bn) a year.
The German subscription broadcasters are understood to be willing, in these exceptional circumstances, to make a significant number of matches freely available to non-subscribers.
But they are also wary that so-called ‘Ghost Games’ – matches played without crowds – could become the longer-term reality as spectator sports learn to adapt to a society managing the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 2020-21 season, which most European leagues hope will begin in September, is very likely to start with behind-closed-doors fixtures, if and where it is allowed to start.
Broadcasters who rely on subscriptions are reluctant to commit to any binding principle that no crowds automatically means more free-to-air games.
The advanced plans for a Bundesliga restart, and the role of pay-TV broadcasters in contributing to ‘safe’ matches, are meanwhile being studied closely elsewhere.
Players from Spain’s La Liga clubs will be returning to training this week, subject to strict protocols limiting individual contact, while England’s Premier League clubs are targeting a possible June restart.
Both those leagues will carry out regular testing for the virus, and are encouraged by the German precedent.
The 36 German clubs who make up the top two divisions of the Bundesliga have presented to the government in Berlin the results of the latest round of tests carried out on players and key staff members. Of over 1700 tests, only 10 were positive.
The players or staff members who tested positive – most are reported to be asymptomatic – have been isolated from their colleagues, and clubs who employ them continued to train and prepare for a possible restart rather than go into individual quarantine. The policy has the blessing of Germany’s health authorities.
The clubs and the DFL are also concerned that players set a responsible example, as they lobby for a green light from government to play matches.
The Hertha Berlin forward, the veteran Ivory Coast international Salomon Kalou was widely criticised for having posted a video on Monday in which he flouted physical distancing rules.
Kalou had filmed himself shaking hands with Hertha team-mates. His club suspended him with immediate effect.
“Kalou infringed very clear regulations,” Hertha said in a statement. “His behaviour was unacceptable in the current circumstances and goes against the code of conduct at Hertha.”
Kalou, a former Champions League winner with Chelsea, and a Hertha player since 2014, later apologised.
“If I gave the impression I have not taken coronavirus seriously, I am sorry," he said. "The opposite is true. I wasn’t thinking, and I was so pleased my test had come back negative.”
The DFL responded with a statement insisting the vast majority are respecting the emergency regulations around training grounds.
“There can be no tolerance of this [Kalou’s behaviour] when clubs and players are adhering to guidelines and appreciate the seriousness of the situation,” it said.