All eyes on the Bundesliga – with cautious optimism

This weekend marked the return of the Bundesliga after a two-month break. The world set its eyes on Germany as the first major sporting league in the world dipped entered the realm of socially distanced competition.

“If the Bundesliga isn’t successful, I don’t know who will be”. Toni Kroos was categorical in an interview with Spanish journal As. Indeed, expectation drenched the narrative around the return of football in Germany. This wasn’t just a welcome return of live football to our TV screens. The Bundesliga led the way into a world where sport will have to completely alter its operation if it is to survive.

A chorus of (irrelevant) opinions

Let’s get this out of the way first. There was no lack of criticism about the protocols set in place by the Bundesliga. The empty stands stood out as a sore spot for many fan groups. These groups derided the Bundesliga’s preference for income, at the expense, they say, of the fan element. The Geisterspiele are, in their eyes, the consummation of the perverted business model of football, where TV money is generally the main source of income for most teams, fans’ voices be damned. Indeed, Geisterspiele have alien atmospheres. Pundits compare them to training sessions, amateur games and everything in between that isn’t the fantastic familiar thing.

But here’s the thing: anyone who is serious about football resisting and overcoming the impact of the pandemic knows that there is no other possible alternative. Only a few clubs can ride out the crisis with their existing cash reserves. Those who can’t depend on the Bundesliga restarting and being broadcast on television.

With 13 out of 36 Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs facing insolvency without a restart, this wasn’t a matter of making money for a privileged few. This is about making sure that many of the 56,000 families working in football don’t see their livelihood vanish. And, obviously, to ensure the survival of the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga after the pandemic subsides.

So while you may or may not sympathise with the fans’ causes, the fact remains that the discussion has morphed into something else: survival.

The Bundesliga, in the form it adopted this weekend, is, as DW’s Matt Ford put it, “football as it has to be”.

Success – for now

Overall, this weekend produced a feeling of success for everyone involved. Authorities hailed the restart as a triumph. Players looked thankful to be able to resume play. Fans were no doubt delighted to see their teams play again. Even people with an otherwise non-existent interest in the Bundesliga relished at the opportunity of watching live top-tier football for the first time in ages. BT’s broadcast of the Reiverderby averaged 500,000 viewers, well over the 400,000 set by Premier League games.

Embed from Getty Images

In the health front, the display was as shocking as it was encouraging. Barring Mats Hummels’ slip before action started at the Signal-Iduna Park, players and staff adhered rigorously to the guidelines imposed by the league. Substitutes sat in new designated areas, keeping the mandatory distance. Ball boys cleaned balls with disinfectant wipes all throughout the games. For the most part, and even though socially distanced goal celebrations weren’t mandatory, players appeared more restrained in their jubilation after scoring.

Embed from Getty Images

The league adopted an intransigent stance with violations, too. Augsburg manager Heiko Herrlich was made an example of after breaching quarantine. As a result, Herrlich missed his team’s game against Wolfsburg. In addition, he will need two negative tests to be allowed near his team again.

Reason for caution

As such, we can draw a few conclusions from this weekend. First, that so far the discipline element holds. Second, that this will be the new normal for a while. Third, that the world watched on in rejoice and relief as the Bundesliga passed its first restart test. Fourth, and crucially, that we need to wait longer before we can conclusively reach the verdict that the restart was successful. Eight matchdays remain in the season. That equates to some six weeks, during which many factors can change. Things beyond the DFL’s and the clubs’ control can alter the course of the roadmap. As a result, even a perfect record on the part of the DFL and the Bundesliga does not guarantee that the season will be finished.

For now, I think we can all be happy that the Bundesliga is back. It shows that things can be done responsibly, if not risk-free, to ensure that life can return to some remnant of normality whilst doing as much as can be done to contain the virus. It brings much-needed solace to fans, myself included. I’d grown sick of watching reruns of old games, the novelty of which wore out quickly.

So far, so good. The Bundesliga leads the way, and the world looks on with contained optimism.