Bundesliga return offers hope, but safety fears persist

Some teams celebrated goals by ignoring social distancing, but did it really make a difference when the players made contact throughout?

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"We can be a little proud," purred an editorial in Sunday's Bild-Zeitung, Germany's best-read newspaper. "Who would have thought our 'ghost games' could become such a successful export?"

Bild were celebrating the fact that, across the world, viewers set aside their weekend to watch the Bundesliga, to see live the first elite European football since the coronavirus pandemic shut down most sports in March. They watched with a mixture of curiosity, envy - and relief that a prestigious domestic league was back in action, that the safety stipulations that permitted the Bundesliga to restart seemed viable, and the participants looked uninhibited.

Football without spectators – ghost games – is a peculiar, surreal sort of show, not least in a football culture with some of the best attendance figures on earth. But it is still football.

In place of applause from the grandstands, the Bundesliga's first day of action for more than two months was cheered far and wide. In L'Equipe, in France, the former World Cup winner turned pundit Bixente Lizarazu wrote: "The Germans prepared quickly, while we were still arguing." France's 2019/20 Ligue 1 will not resume, the French league have already announced, because of safety concerns in a country where over 27,000 lives have been lost to Covid-19.

Germany appears to have contained the virus more successfully, enabling professional football, among other aspects of 'normal life' to take place under restricted conditions, and the Bundesliga's protocols are now being mirrored abroad as various other major leagues, like the Premier League, Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A tentatively look to mid-June for their behind-closed-doors restarts.

Leading German footballers based abroad congratulated their compatriots. Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan posted: “After 90 minutes, first impressions are that, as expected, it is strange without crowds. But it was a joy to watch football again after so long.” Gundogan, a former Borussia Dortmund player, had been gripped by Dortmund’s lively 4-0 demolition of local rivals Schalke.

The emptiness of a Dortmund stadium that would normally expect more than 80,000 to roar them on in the so-called Revierderby was striking, though not stifling. Dortmund were slick, motivated and well-drilled - although the new, specific health-and-safety drills that have been pressed on players and staff as prerequisites for safe football to take place during the public health crisis still need some improvement. Contact between players outside the necessary duelling tackling is supposed to be avoided; a couple of high fives were exchanged between teammates during Dortmund-Schalke, although the four goals were celebrated with rehearsed rituals that respected social distancing.

At Hoffenheim, where Hertha Berlin won 3-0, that was not the case. Every goal was greeted with at least one embrace, the first with a group huddle involving five Hertha players and the third with veteran Vedad Ibisevic leaping on the back of goalscorer Matheus Cunha. “It is hard to tell my players to take the emotion out of their best game,” said Bruno Labbadia, “this is not a church choir.”

He would, though, remind his squad of the guidelines on contact, added Labbadia. He knows his club are under special scrutiny since their striker Salomon Kalou filmed himself infringing rules on non-contact with other players at the training ground earlier this month. Kalou was immediately suspended by Hertha.

The rules of the sport itself are altered, too. Nine of the 10 head coaches involved in Saturday’s first day of the restart made more than three substitutions; six of them made five substitutions, using the full allowance permitted by Fifa for the rest of the 2019/20 campaign. The rule is designed to mitigate against concerns that the disruption to normal training ahead of the restart has put players at greater risk of injury and fatigue.

The permitting of five substitutes has not entirely soothed worries about lack of full preparation. Werder Bremen, who are in the relegation zone, will take on Bayer Leverkusen on Monday still grumpy that they have been rushed back into a season they believe should have waited for longer before restarting.

Because the local health authority in Bremen imposed tighter restrictions, in April, on collective sporting activities than most other regions, Werder started training later than their rivals and they believe that puts them at a disadvantage. With a six-point gap between them and 15th place in the table – the last spot without a relegation threat – and the worst goal-difference in the league, Bremen can hardly afford to gently ease back into their stride.