On Saturday, May 16, the eyes of the sporting world will be on the German Bundesliga as it returns to action after a 61-day hiatus due to the coronavirus. It will be the first of Europe's elite leagues to return to action and as the English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga attempt to get their 2019-20 seasons back and completed, the Bundesliga will be under the spotlight.
Fredi Bobic, Eintracht Frankfurt sporting director, told ESPN exclusively on Friday that at one stage, it looked like it was "50/50" over whether the league would return or be cancelled. But now the league is back, the players and staff know full well the scrutiny they are under.
"Everybody will watch the Bundesliga to see how the players are on the field and outside the field. Hopefully they will do it positively. A lot of our colleagues can participate in that -- if everything works, the handbook, the plan, everything, we can give that to other federations and other sports."
With Bayern Munich leading the Bundesliga by four points, they are the team to beat. Their CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, praised the DFL's (Deutsche Fußball Liga, the body in charge of the German football leagues) decision to play the remainder of the league's fixtures, saying the decision "ensures that the sporting decisions are made on the pitch and not in the boardroom." But there are still unknowns. It's taken countless hours of conference calls and input from medical professionals to get the Bundesliga to this stage where Germany Chancellor, Angela Merkel, gave her blessing on Wednesday to the proposals to the get the league back off and running.
ESPN talked to league sources and clubs about various plans and contingencies for how they will resume play.
With additional reporting by Stephan Uersfeld, Jonathan Harding and Constantin Eckner
Will the players be fit and ready for May 16?
Most of the clubs went back to training at the start of April. They required permission from their local state, and all had to adhere to the 11-point list of guidelines handed down from the DFL. They were told to respect social distancing and keep any non-essential time at the training ground to a minimum. Some players trained in masks.
Bayern Munich were one of the first Bundesliga teams to return to training and they practised in small groups of three or four players, focusing on skill drills while respecting social distancing rules. The sessions were non-contact; Manuel Neuer and the rest of the goalkeepers trained in a separate group, only interacting with the outfield players during shooting practise.
Head coach, Hans-Dieter Flick, and his assistants use poles and pylons to direct the players and player dummies as opponents. The sessions finish with intense sprints, but there's no time to shower afterwards as they are closed in the training ground. Players pick up food packages to take home as team meals are prohibited with locker rooms limited to two players at any one time.
At RB Leipzig, each player has an individual room at Cottaweg, their plush training facility, and at noon every day, lunch is placed outside their door. At Bayer Leverkusen, players were grouped together based on their role in the team -- those who play down the right wing train in the same group, for example -- and cardboard cut-outs are used to simulate opponents. Hoffenheim, meanwhile, have been focusing on their players' mental attentiveness through a series of short videos and tactical lessons conducted via tablets. They have installed a 360-degree screen at their training ground for even more complex brain games.
At Mainz 05, sporting director Rouven Schroder believes this unusual situation has offered players and coaches the chance to go "back to the roots" of why they play the game. They've adopted a "street soccer" mentality anchored on how to beat your opponent in one-on-one situations, handling the insults and remembering those days in the park when you played when you were young. To replicate a behind-closed-doors atmosphere, they've been training at their old, empty Bruchwegstadion ground, which they left in 2011 for the Opel Arena.
Werder Bremen, who are in a relegation battle, were one of the teams who had to wait to return to training as the Bremen State took longer to give them permission to train in small groups. While other teams were back in contact-less training, head coach, Florian Kohfeldt, said his club had been left in "limbo" and hoped it would not lead to a "disadvantage" in the future.
Of course, it will take time for teams to get up to speed. Eintracht Frankfurt coach, Adi Hutter, predicts his team would need between 10-14 days regular training before being ready for a competitive league match while some players are also concerned that the rush back to competitive matches may lead to injuries. On Thursday, Union Berlin defender Neven Subotic, 31, said returning to full team training felt strange.
"It's just going to be a lot of risk management and trying to get a finished season with the fewest casualties," Subotic told BBC World Service.
Bobic agrees injuries are a concern. "It is a short time [until] the first match and you have no preseason or anything like that. So, we have to start from [scratch]. It will be interesting first one to see when it's played how kind of football is received. [The players] are not scared but from the football side, it is a risk."
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Why the rush to get the Bundesliga back?
Schalke 04 warned of "existence-threatening" concerns if the league did not return by June. Football as a sport is facing unprecedented financial strain as clubs cope with the absence of matchday income. As many as 18 of the 36 teams in Germany's top two divisions could have faced severe financial difficulties had the leagues not returned this season, according to Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert. He said if the leagues were cancelled, they would lose in region of $800 million (€750m).
Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia Dortmund CEO, said ominously "the Bundesliga would not exist in its current form" if the season was cancelled. This echoed what the DFL executive committee said in April: "We do not want an economic crisis to lead to structural damage that could be irreparable and radically change the face of German professional football." And so getting the games back on television, even without spectators, was established as a priority, with the DFL launching a "Task Force Sports Medicine/ Special Game Operations" on March 31. By mid-April it offered a 51-page blueprint for how behind-closed-doors matches would take place.
Amid optimism that lockdown regulations would be loosened in Germany, in late April the DFL secured the payment of the final installment of TV rights revenue from all but one broadcaster. The first installment of three from the €254m ($274m) was paid May 2 and gave clubs financial breathing space, with sources telling ESPN some teams across the two leagues had already guaranteed that unpaid revenue to various creditors. The other two instalments are reliant on matches being completed.
What were some of the biggest concerns about resuming the season?
In the midst of a global pandemic, there are concerns over players and staff contracting the coronavirus and then spreading the virus. This is where the DFL's task force comes into play, which details in depth the social distancing, hygiene and practicalities of limiting contact where necessary.
There have been concerns that DFL would divert testing capacity away from the general public due to the required 25,000 tests that Bundesliga players and personnel would need in order to finish the season. But Germany has enough testing capacity right now (860,000 weekly test capacity in calendar week 17) and the DFL has said they will not take anything away from the public. They are also paying for the tests.
Are the players getting tested?
The players and staff are tested twice a week. In matchday weeks, the players are tested the day prior a match and on another occasion during the week (in double match weeks, players will be tested before both matches). They are given two tests -- nose and throat -- to help prevent false results and arrive in the lab as one PCR (polymerase chain reaction test). Results are then given to the team's head doctor at 10am on the morning of the matches. The teams are also being given antibody tests.
At Bayer Leverkusen, the players receive a message every morning on their phone, asking five questions about how they are feeling. Depending on their answers, they are then granted permission to go to training where on arrival, their temperature is checked.
The DFL carried out 1,724 tests in late April/early May across Bundesliga/2. Bundesliga. The governing body announced on May 4 those tests produced 10 positive results, with three coming from Cologne. The club said all three were symptom-free and training would proceed as normal, but it caused controversy with Cologne's Birger Verstraete breaking ranks on Belgian TV where he questioned the club's policy.
"We train in two groups and you know that the boys were extremely close to me," Verstraete told VTM. "The test was done on Thursday around 4 p.m. and before that we had been together constantly from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. We did fitness work together, trained together. Thursday's test didn't show that I am positive and that is why there will be another test tomorrow." Verstraete, whose girlfriend manages a previous heart condition, said the club's call not to put everyone the entire team in quarantine "is a bit bizarre," adding, "my head is not on soccer."
Verstraete would later apologize for his remarks, but the concern over the spread of the coronavirus led 2.Bundesliga team Erzgebirge Aue to put their entire squad and staff in home isolation after they had one positive test in their "functional team."
What about players' families?
The DFL plan set out a list of recommendations and requirements that players must follow if they return home between matches.
For the rest of the season, anyone in a player's household is subject to voluntary testing. Players are not allowed to have physical contact with neighbours or public, must respect the six-foot social distancing rule, are not allowed visitors at home and are prohibited from using public transport: Union Berlin's Subotic is one of the few players who still travels everywhere by this method. These rules apply to everyone who lives in the player's household.
They also need to keep a note of all the people they are in contact with and if someone breaks the social distancing rules, then players are recommended to go back into quarantine until they have been tested.
Will the players go into quarantine before the season starts?
There were suggestions that Merkel was considering implementing a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for teams prior to the start of Bundesliga, but this has since been reduced to one week. Teams will go into a seven-day training camp and isolation on May 8 and will be regularly tested as they restart full-contact training before matches resume on May 16.
For Borussia Mönchengladbach, this means they will stay at the Borussia-8-Grad hotel, which sits alongside their ground. Bayern are likely to train away from their state-of-the-art Sabener Strausse HQ and instead head to the Bayern Campus where the youth and women teams train. Before home games, Bayern will use the Infinity Hotel in Unterschleissheim, the largest hotel and conference center in Southern Germany.
RB Leipzig will likely stay at their training ground, where the players have 18-square meter rooms with TVs and internet access. Union Berlin are headed to Barsinghausen near Hannover to avoid players leaving the hotel. Hertha Berlin are in their normal team hotel in Berlin's city centre and will travel to their training ground near the Olympiastadion. Borussia Dortmund will use their normal team hotel outside the city limits.
What happens if players test positive for the coronavirus?
The official protocol from the DFL states: "In the case of positive test results, the decision about the measures to be taken lies with the local health authorities." Clubs have broadly implemented a 14-day quarantine period for players and staff who have tested positive.
The focus is on minimising the spread of the virus and clubs will look to their local authorities for guidance should players or staff become exposed to someone who is positive for the coronavirus. If they've been in direct contact with an infected individual for more than 15 minutes, they are "category one" and at high risk of infection. "Category two" people are those at a low risk and who have had no direct or indirect contact for more than 15 minutes with an infected individual.
In the case of a positive test, the team doctor informs the local health authority and the DFL while also isolating the player. If a player is showing symptoms, they are tested at home or in a drive-through testing station. If a player is starting to show symptoms prior to testing, protocols state they must inform the team doctor and self-isolate. They are told to also avoid exhausting physical activities. If they are symptom-free but still test positive, they will liaise with the team doctor to whether they can continue exercising on their own.
Meanwhile the club are asked not to issue any official communications and have been advised by the DFL to operate with a squad big enough -- including academy players -- to cover any players absent due to quarantine.
What about match officials?
Around 100 referees and assistant referees will be tested next week prior to the return of the league and if an official tests positive, a new referee will be appointed. If that's not possible, the fourth official will step in. All referees will be tested the day prior to matches and are asked to refrain from posting on their social media accounts.
How many people will be in the stadiums on matchday?
The DFL has prepared a "dynamic personnel plan" which says a maximum of 322 people are permitted in and around the stadiums for Bundesliga matches. This includes players, coaches, referees, camera crews, anti-doping officials, stewards, security, ground staff and ball boys. They all have their temperature checked on arrival. Anyone deemed a risk will be sent home.
For Bundesliga games, the DFL has divided these 322 personnel into three zones: 98 people are allowed pitch-side (22 players, three photographers, four ball boys, four security, five officials, 15 VAR technicians, three hygiene staff, four medical staff, 18 substitutes and 20 coaching staff). There are a further 115 personnel permitted in the stands (10 security, four medical staff, seven league representatives, two anti-doping officials, five stadium operators, eight team staff, eight from the home team delegation, four from the away team delegation, five hygiene staff, two firemen, four police, 10 written media, 23 from TV companies, four analysts and 19 VAR/TV technicians). Outside the stadium there are 109 permitted people (50 security, 14 TV Crew, 37 VAR/TV technicians and eight ground staff).
What will a matchday look like under these conditions?
The task force's plan lays out the strict stipulations. If a match takes place at 3.30 p.m., preparation starts at 8 in the morning when eight ground keepers arrive at the stadium to take care of the pitch. Two hours later, the 90 people needed for VAR, satellite feeds and television production arrive. During these early hours, 32 security guards make sure that no one enters the area without permission. At noon, police officers, paramedics, fire fighters and the first few members of the team staff, among others, arrive.
Three-and-a-half hours before kick-off, 226 people are already present. As this is all going on, players and coaches are getting ready for their departure from the hotel or training facility. They are expected to arrive about 90 minutes before kick off. Players are to be transported in multiple buses or vans that have been disinfected beforehand, with teams told to stagger arrival. Players and staff have to stay roughly five feet from each other and wear face masks when they get to the stadium. For home games, players are permitted to drive their own cars to the stadium though car sharing is not allowed.
Once the players are in the stadium, they're advised to use their elbow when operating lifts and communal meals are not permitted. Hand-sanitising stations are in every room used in the stadium.
The starting XIs change clothes first and are followed by the replacements, who come into the locker room area afterwards. If the locker room area is small (e.g. in Schalke's Veltins-Arena) then the clubs have to determine different access paths. If the area is spacious -- like in Bayern's Allianz Arena, for example -- then players should be spread out as much as possible. In general, the DFL advises to use as many available rooms as possible to prepare for the match. Players should only spend between 30-40 minutes in the locker room area and during that time, they still have to stay at least five feet apart and wear face masks.
Match officials will get changed in one shared dressing room but must follow hygiene and distancing rules. They've also been instructed to travel to the stadium on the day of the game rather than staying nearby the night before.
Equipment like balls and shoes will be checked by the fourth official at the doors of the locker rooms. Balls are disinfected before and during the match, while a maximum of four ball boys are permitted at the match; all must be at least 16 years old. They are asked to frequently disinfect their hands.
Once the players exit their changing rooms, they have to leave the required space in the tunnel. The empty changing rooms are then disinfected.
Any prematch ceremonies will be dialled down to a bare minimum, as there aren't any player mascots or handshakes between opponents. There aren't any team pictures taken because players are not allowed to gather before kick-off.
Substitutes should leave at least one or two seats empty between each other in the dugout. If the benches are too small to host all of them and the coaching staff, clubs can use seating in the stands in order to maintain safe spacing. Besides bench players and coaches, only the fourth official, medical staff, ball boys, security personnel, and camera operators are allowed around the halfway line and bench area. The players will rehydrate from individual, disposable bottles.
The task force's plan finishes with the resolute message: "The public's view of professional football, the teams and players in the current situation becomes more important than ever. We urgently ask for exemplary behaviour regarding hygiene and distancing measures outside of the field of play."
What will games behind closed doors look like once the teams are out on the pitch?
The DFL was concerned about matches being played in front of empty stands. "Games without spectators are not what we want, but at the moment, the only thing that seems feasible," Seifert said in April. Clubs have already instigated novel ways to combat the empty stands with Borussia Mönchengladbach offering supporters the chance to purchase cardboard cut-outs of themselves to fill the gaps (they cost roughly $20), with proceeds going to local charities).
Bobic's Eintracht Frankfurt have already played behind closed doors twice in the Europa League this season. He said it was "not a nice experience" and it takes time to get used to the "totally different atmosphere in the stadium."
Fans are also allowed to send banners to their club the day before the match. The club then places these banners inside the stadium on matchday. But clubs are asked to refrain from installing any kind of sound system that would pump in artificial crowd noise during the game.
What about keeping fans away from games?
With mass gatherings banned in Germany until Aug. 31, there were other concerns over supporters congregating outside the grounds, like the scenes outside the Parc des Princes back on March 11 when PSG played Borussia Dortmund behind closed doors in the Champions League. But Bobic explains the strictest measures are in place to prevent fans from turning up.
"We talked a lot with our own fans at Frankfurt and said listen guys, don't show up at the stadium -- if you show up at the stadium, we will lose this game because the rules are very strict," Bobic says. "If they show up, the result goes to the away team. It's not allowed -- we've reopened a lot of things, but that's not allowed, no big groups. Don't show up at the stadium, it makes no sense."
The Dortmund-Schalke 04 Revierderby takes place on the opening weekend and is usually played out in front of more than 80,000 fans at Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park home. But Dortmund police told ESPN they are confident no fan groups will show up. The police will monitor the stadium given that social distancing rules are still in place.
Were neutral venues ever considered to reduce the risk of home fans congregating outside?
While Premier League is strongly considering finishing the season in neutral venues, the DFL only gave it brief thought. ESPN sources say playing in neutral venues was never a realistic possibility.
Will the players wear masks during the game itself? How about coaches or referees?
Germany's Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs drafted a paper a few weeks ago that discussed players wearing masks throughout a match, but this was deemed impractical because they need to breathe freely during play. The same goes for the referees and their two assistants.
Managers, however, must wear masks though they are allowed to lower it to shout instructions if they are keeping a safe distance from others. The fourth official must also wear one; so too the coaches and bench players if they cannot keep the required social distance. The three VAR operatives at each game will wear masks and will set next to each other, but with temporary acrylic glass walls separating them.
What about the in-game conditions from set-pieces? Will players be able to celebrate goals? Swap shirts? Spit if needed?
These specifics are still being discussed but the Bundesliga told the clubs on Friday that players are not allowed to celebrate together, exchange high fives or embrace. "Short contact with elbow or foot" is permitted. "[The players] are so creative -- I am excited to see what will happen if somebody scores," Bobic says. Players are also asked not to spit, other than during re-hydration.
Goalkeepers must refrain from shouting instructions from between the posts, while referees are instructed to remind players of the guidelines if they're deemed out of compliance. It will be up to referees to use their own discretion in certain circumstances. If players circle the ref or get too near to him, he will remind them to keep the distance, but not book them straight away. He will also not caution the coach if he takes off his mask to shout something to players on the pitch, as long as they maintain their social distance.
Other than that, it's business as usual after the prematch coin toss.
What happens after the match?
Players are strongly advised to shower at home, or in the hotel. They are also expected to wash their own kit and boots. Players will not be giving any interviews in the mixed zone -- a typical practice -- with press conferences instead conducted via video call. About 90 minutes after the final whistle, most of the players have already left the stadium and are on their way back to the hotel. Only four players will remain in the stadium if chosen for random drug testing.
With the rest of the sporting world watching the German Bundesliga, is your reputation on the line?
DFL CEO Seifert said the Bundesliga is "on parole" and Bobic agrees.
"It is a risk because no one was in this situation before," Bobic said. "So that's the biggest problem and it's a question mark." He believes the league is prepared well, but says everyone has to manage the process. "The boys have to [concentrate on] football and that's what we have to talk about. The other things... I'm sure we can manage all these guidelines what we got in this special handbook from the league and from the federation.
"The pressure's on us. [All] 36 clubs, they will start [next weekend]. It's not easy because so many stupid things can happen but we will try. And then, when it hopefully goes well, everybody can say at the end, you know, 'typical made in Germany.'"