Germany set for whole new ball game as Bundesliga kicks off again

Top flight resumes on Saturday with empty stadiums but most fans are against restarting the league

Schalke players train in Gelsenkirchen earlier this week as they prepare for the Ruhr derby against Borussia Dortmund. Picture: Martin Meissner/AP

No fans, no hugging, no spitting. The Bundesliga will be very different when it resumes today following a two-month suspension caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

There will be no children to accompany players onto the field, no contact between rivals in the tunnel before games, no handshakes with the referee or match officials, substitutes will have to wear masks and sit apart, and even goals in the empty stadiums will be sombre affairs – players have been warned to keep their emotions in check.

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Coaches will be permitted to remove their masks to shout instructions at their players - as long as they stay at least 1.5 metres away.

To compensate for the lack of atmosphere, Sky TV says it will offer viewers a new audio option with pre-recorded fan chants, singing and reactions based on the games. Borussia Monchengladbach will have artificial cutouts of real supporters in the stands for their remaining home matches.

Most fans don’t even want the league to resume – the latest polls from German broadcasters show a growing majority are against it – but football authorities were desperate to get back on track with several clubs, including Bundesliga club Schalke, already on the brink financially.

Chancellor Angela Merkel finally gave the go-ahead to restart the season on 6 May after taking note of Germany’s dropping rate in new infections for Covid-19, though she made it clear that football was low down on her list of priorities.

The last Bundesliga game was played on 11 March as the virus was beginning to take hold in Germany. Unaware, or perhaps indifferent to the danger, hundreds of Borussia Monchengladbach fans gathered outside their closed stadium as their team defeated Cologne 2-1. Gladbach players even celebrated with supporters afterward in scenes that authorities are determined won’t be repeated.

“ We’re playing on probation,” league CEO Christian Seifert said.

Local authorities have the power to derail the clubs’ stated aim to finish the regular season by the end of June.

Second division club Dynamo Dresden are undergoing 14 days of quarantine after two more players tested positive for Covid-19 last Saturday, placing their participation in the league in doubt.

Efforts to restart the third division are being hampered because clubs like Carl Zeiss Jena, Magdeburg and Hallescher FC are not allowed to train. A spat has developed with the German football federation, which wanted the division to resume on 26 May.

The country’s top clubs don’t face such issues. With nine games of the season remaining, Bayern Munich visit Union Berlin tomorrow with a four-point lead at the top of the standings.

Second-place Borussia Dortmund host Schalke in the Ruhr derby today. Third-place Leipzig, who are a point further behind, meet Freiburg, and Borussia Monchengladbach, another point back, visit Frankfurt, also today.

But there’s no guarantee that all nine remaining rounds will be played. The league has put off a decision on what will happen if play is suspended again or the rest of the season is called off. The standings would most likely stand, with the top team named champion and the bottom two relegated.

Teams were preparing for the restart in quarantine conditions this week. Augsburg coach Heiko Herrlich was due to make his debut in charge against Wolfsburg today, but he will miss the game after breaking quarantine restrictions to buy toiletries. Herrlich will only return after twice testing negative for Covid-19.

More than 20,000 tests for the virus will be carried out on players, coaching staff and other team officials as part of the league’s hygiene plan to complete the season. But that hasn’t stopped some from outlining concerns. Cologne midfielder Birger Verstraete criticised the club for their handing of three positive cases of the virus, and Union Berlin defender Neven Subotic said that it was a “precarious situation” for all the players.

“It is going to be impossible to come out of the league with positive remarks,” Subotic told the BBC.

Karlsruher SC midfielder Marc Lorenz was even more critical, saying the league hadn’t considered players’ health “at all” in its rush to get back in action. “The players will be exhausted after 60 minutes,” Lorenz told the Badische Neueste Nachrichten newspaper. “The five substitutions that were just decided won’t help there. Fatigue will come and then the serious injuries.”

The league is allowing five substitutions instead of the usual three to help teams following two months without play.

The second division is also resuming today, albeit without quarantined last-place Dresden.

The Bundesliga is the first of the five major leagues in Europe to resume. The French league has been called off. Now the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga will be watching closely to see how German authorities deal with the risk factors that could lead to another shutdown.

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