The German league takes the spotlight on Saturday as the first top European league to resume during the coronavirus pandemic, with one coach admitting it feels like “flying blind”.
After a two-month break, the German Football League (DFL) had to submit an extraordinarily detailed plan of measures to gain approval for the restart from Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 16 state leaders.
With league football still at least a month away in England, Italy and Spain, and France having already decided to end its season, the Bundesliga games this weekend will be beamed around the world.
Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert has warned the matches, played in empty stadiums because of the risk of infection, will “look and feel different”.
– Elbow taps, face masks –
The shouts of players will echo around the empty stands and goals will have to be celebrated with elbow or foot taps because players have been ordered to avoid hugs or handshakes.
Substitutes and coaches on the bench must wear protective masks.
Match fitness is a concern as teams only started training sessions for the whole squad last week having previously worked in small groups.
“I’m calling it ‘flying blind’,” Hertha Berlin coach Bruno Labbadia said.
“With so few days of preparation, it’s impossible to say where we stand.”
With no crowd noise to mask the odd swear word, RB Leipzig’s coach Julian Nagelsmann admitted he will have to curb his language.
“I will try to behave in a socially acceptable way in the (coaching) zone,” he quipped.
– ‘Greedy’ Bayern –
For coaches and players alike, this weekend’s matches will be played in exceptional circumstances.
In Saturday’s key game, Borussia Dortmund host Schalke in the 156th Ruhr derby.
For the first time in the fixture’s 95-year history it will be behind closed doors, when 82,000 passionate fans would normally pack out Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park.
On Sunday, FC Union host leaders Bayern Munich, who were four points clear at the top when matches were suspended in March, at their compact Alten Foersterei stadium in east Berlin.
The boisterous home crowd helped Union beat previous leaders Dortmund, and Moenchengladbach, there this season.
However, those fans will be absent when star-studded Bayern run out. And the reigning champions are hungry to close out the season with an eighth consecutive Bundesliga title.
“When I see the emotions we have developed over the last few days, even in a training game, it shows our greed for regular competition,” Bayern forward Thomas Mueller wrote on LinkedIn.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
“In Germany, the players are in a weak position,” Union defender Neven Subotic told Deutschlandfunk radio.
“We were informed after all decisions had been made.
“I don’t want to talk my way out of the responsibility – but there was no representative body of the players.”
The clubs want to finish the nine rounds of matches by June 30 in order to claim around 300 million euros ($324 million) in television money.
However, the fear is that an outbreak of the virus within the league could once again halt the season.
In curb the risk of infection, players and staff are being tested regularly and each club has been in a week-long quarantine before this weekend’s matches.
– ‘Abide by the rules’ –
However, some have already broken the guidelines.
Augsburg’s new coach Heiko Herrlich has stood himself down for Saturday’s match at home to Wolfsburg after breaking the quarantine by leaving the team hotel to buy toothpaste.
“I made a mistake,” Herrlich said. “I did not live up to my function as a role model for my team and the public.”
Likewise, ex-Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou, 34, is suspended by Hertha Berlin for shaking hands with team-mates in a video he posted.
Despite his profuse apology, the league and politicians slammed the Ivory Coast striker for flaunting the rules.
The coronavirus has claimed 7,824 deaths in Germany, which still has 173,152 cases of the virus. The figures are far lower than other major European countries, partly because of rigorous testing at the onset of the pandemic.
A poll by broadcaster ARD showed 56 percent of the German public are opposed to the return of league football during the pandemic.
The onus is on the players to ensure Saturday’s restart is a success.
“Down to the last player, everyone knows to abide by the rules,” said Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.