"Health first, then football." The words of Cologne midfielder Birger Verstraete are a timely reminder that while football is an enormous world full of business, power and social importance, it is also a game played by people.
On May 1, Cologne announced that three members of staff - thought to be two players and a physiotherapist — had tested positive for the coronavirus. Verstraete later revealed to Belgian TV that he had been treated for weeks by the physio in question and that he had worked out with one of the players who tested positive as recently as the day before testing. The three were symptom free and were naturally put into quarantine for two weeks.
Verstraete's girlfriend suffers from a heart condition, putting her in an at-risk group. "The health of my family, girlfriend, everyone, actually, is paramount," he said. "It is not up to me to decide what to do with the Bundesliga, but I can say that my head is not on football."
The following day, Cologne released a statement attempting to clarify some aspects of the interview they felt were misrepresented. Verstraete also released a statement, saying: "Instead of giving an interview out of emotion, I should have contacted our doctor and had my questions answered." The player also added that his girlfriend was heading home to Belgium "for the time being."
People then players
The truth of the situation remains unclear. What is clear is that players are concerned. That's because players are not just promising defensive midfielders, they're also human beings. Their great financial means and privileged life may make handling some aspects of this situation easier, but as the emotional words of Verstraete's first interview reveal, he is not free of concern or fear.
And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's completely natural given the widespread unease about the future. Germany's handling of the coronavirus up until this point has put them in a strong position to recover, but the situation remains fragile for everyone. Verstraete's words are a reminder that the resumption of football should be approached with consideration for those actually playing it and their families in mind.
Germany's plans to see the Bundesliga restart in May have been discussed for weeks on end. DFL (German football league) CEO Christian Seifert has held many press conferences. Doctor Tim Meyer, head of the medical task force, has outlined plans for how training and games during the coronavirus might look. Club's sporting directors and chairman have spoken about the financial concerns and the future of clubs. Some minister presidents have given voice to the situation. On Sunday. Even Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer chimed in, offering his support for a restart.
These views are all to be expected and, in some cases, also necessary. But they are not the voices of those playing, not the voices of those being asked to risk their health and that of their families. What of those in socially distanced training sessions or playing games behind closed doors?
How much risk is too much?
Clearly, all of the work being done by the aforementioned task force is to secure the safety of all involved. Meyer told German broadcaster Sport1 that with nearly 2,000 people in the Bundesliga having been tested, positives were expected. He also stated that no system was foolproof. The aim is to use "a bundle of measures to achieve a medically justifiable risk."
Verstraete is not alone in his concern. In England, Brighton striker Glenn Murray called the Premier League's restart proposal, which included corner flags being disinfected, players wearing masks during training and staff wearing PPE, farcical. Furthermore, he admitted players were worried about returning too soon and putting their families at risk. Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero has expressed similar concerns.
It is clear that some players are uneasy. They're afraid of potentially putting their families in danger, of taking resources away from others who may need them more urgently, or of potentially being away from their families for long periods of time should the game return with such regulations. For Verstraete, the latter has already become a reality.
The situation remains complex, a definitive answer impossible. But however the sport decides to move forward, it surely must consider the feelings of those who do the playing.