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Despite German politicians' deciding against increasing capacity, Bavaria will allow fans to return to stadiums. Elsewhere, however, restrictions remain — much to the consternation of Borussia Dortmund's CEO and others.
Bayern Munich will play their next Bundesliga home game against RB Leipzig on February 5 in front of 10,000 fans after the southern German state of Bavaria announced that football stadiums there could operate at 25% capacity, and up to a maximum of 10,000 spectators.
Games in Bavaria, including Bundesliga sides Greuther Fürth and Augsburg, second-division Nuremberg and Ingolstadt, and third-division 1860 Munich and Würzburger Kickers, will take place under "2G+" conditions (vaccinated or recovered, plus negative test or booster), with FFP2 masks obligatory and a ban on the sale of alcohol.
Bavaria and its state premier Markus Söder are going it alone on this one. Football matches and other elite sporting events elsewhere in Germany will continue to take place effectively behind closed doors after chancellor Olaf Scholz and Germany's other state premiers decided not to drastically alter the country's current coronavirus strategy.
Chancellor Scholz met with the 16 state premiers on Monday, having already told daily Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that "we don't need a change of course," adding: "It's certainly not appropriate to loosen the rules in the middle of the omicron wave.''
Chancellor Olaf Scholz (left) at the meeting with German state premiers to discuss Germany's pandemic strategy
Germany has reported a string of new case number records in the past two weeks as the omicron strain finally takes hold in the country. The country's Robert Koch Institute for disease control on Monday said there had been 840 new cases per 100,000 people in the past week, with 63,393 new infections reported over the previous 24 hours.
But with a 73.5% national vaccination rate largely protecting the population from the milder omicron variant and keeping the pressure off intensive care units, sports bosses and fans had hoped for a relaxation of current capacity restrictions.
However, a suggestion from the Hesse state premier Volker Bouffier to increase attendance at professional sporting events to 25% (with an already proven hygiene concept) was rejected.
The only decision made regarding "large nationwide events" was to agree upon "consistent regulations" by February 9, and to put an end to different rules applying from state to state, which now seems likely to continue anyway after Bavaria's unilateral decision.
"We will make some adjustments because it is no longer proportionate to have the same rules when the pressure on hospitals is so low," state premier Söder had told local broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk.
But while Bayern Munich and their neighbors will be able to welcome thousands of fans back to stadiums, matches in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia are limited to just 750 — despite the state boasting some of Germany's largest stadiums, in Dortmund, Cologne, Gelsenkirchen, Mönchengladbach, Düsseldorf and other locations.
Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke has voiced his frustration on several occasions and is even considering legal action.
"We will take a close look at the measures passed by the state of [North Rhine-Westphalia] and see if we can have them checked," he told news agency dpa. "It is bitter that the majority of [the state premiers' conference] participants are still only thinking about bans after two years and not about the possibility of logical decisions."
Borussia Dortmund lose approximately €4 million ($4.5m) for every game played behind closed doors at the 83,000-capacity Westfalenstadion, which has also functioned as a coronavirus treatment and vaccination center at various points during the pandemic.
In February, 2,700 BVB fans will travel to Glasgow, Scotland, to see their team play Rangers in the Europa League — almost 2,000 more than are allowed to attend home games in Dortmund.
"Almost three-quarters of Germany's population are vaccinated and there has been sufficient supply of vaccines for every single citizen for months," said Watzke. "We know a lot more about omicron now, but we're still only allowing 750 people into an open-air stadium while some indoor venues are almost 90% full.
"It's disproportionate, it's not science anymore, no one understands it. Football has become a victim of image politics."
While 10,000 fans will be able to attend games in Munich, only 750 are allowed in Cologne, much to the frustration of fans and officials
His Cologne counterpart Alexander Wehrle agreed, referring to the recent scenario in which only 2,000 fans could attend the German Cup game between St. Pauli and Borussia Dortmund in Hamburg — outdoors — while, just across the city, the Elbphilharmonie opera house was 95% full, indoors.
"It's not funny anymore," Wehrle told Köln-Talk. The pandemic has cost his club €85m so far. "Health is the most important thing, but there has to be a limit. It's simply not rational anymore."
There has been criticism from the media as well. The Rheinische Post called the situation "a farce" and said the decision of the state premiers' conference was a "slap in the face for the entire professional sports industry."
Sportschau commented that "there are no valid arguments against a return of fans […] it's beginning to look as if the politicians are point-scoring by putting football in its place."
New German Football League chief executive Donata Hopfen said: "It's not understandable that professional sport is being treated objectively worse than other areas of life. We expect some concrete solutions by February 9 and are prepared to help work on them."