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Bundesliga: Football as it has to be

May 17, 2020

With Germany handling the coronavirus situation well, the Bundesliga was allowed to return this weekend, attracting interest from across the globe. But closer to home, fundamental questions are still being asked.

Deutschland Bundesliga BVB gegen Schalke
Image: Reuters/M. Meissner

The Bundesliga became the first major European football league to return to action following this weekend, basking in the sunlight of a global audience.

Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach appeared unaffected by the two-month coronavirus-enforced hiatus, while high-flying RB Leipzig were held to a draw by consistent overachievers Freiburg. Cologne and Mainz played out an entertaining draw, and even Hertha Berlin got off to a winning start under new coach Bruno Labbadia.

Most importantly, however, the hygiene concept meticulously developed by the German Football League (DFL) seemed to work. The players took to the field separately, substitutes and coaching staff wore masks, balls were disinfected and interviews with the limited number of journalists present took place at a safe distance.

Questions were asked about some players' overly physical goal celebrations, but the DFL's regulations in this regard were more recommendations than rules, leaving sanctions unlikely.

Footballs were disinfected before play resumed in the Bundesliga
Footballs were disinfected before play resumed in the BundesligaImage: Reuters/S. Schuermann

Principal broadcaster Sky reported record viewing figures, and high-ranking politicians such as Bavarian Premier Markus Söder hailed the restart a "successful experiment."

This was all likely music to the ears of the DFL because, despite all the talk of a return to normality, this was anything but normal. Never mind entertainment for the people; the restart was an existential necessity for a league that can count itself fortunate to be based in a country that has dealt with the coronavirus better than most.

The Bundesliga usually boasts the highest average attendance of any league in the world and likes to market itself outside of Germany as "football as it's meant to be" — an indirect dig at other leagues which are considered less supporter-friendly.

But without supporters in the stadiums, this was a sterile shadow of German football. It was football as it's going to have to be for the time being, before more fundamental questions are answered.

Deutschland Bundesliga - FC Köln v 1. FSV Mainz 05
Socially distanced interviews are part of the DFL's strict hygiene conceptImage: Reuters/L. Baron

'Football will live, your business is sick'

Professional football remains much closer to its supporters in Germany than elsewhere, with the 50+1 rule stipulating that members control majority stakes in clubs. When German fans talk about "their club" and "their game," they're more than just platitudes. They represent a collective football culture which the fans are fiercely protective of.

Member-led clubs, standing terraces, affordable tickets, fan-friendly kickoff times, inclusive politics and a vibrant fan culture: All are direct consequences of the fact that, in Germany, the match-going supporter comes first.

The resumption of "ghost games" behind closed doors in order to secure television money — no matter how economically vital it might be — is therefore anathema to Germany's understanding of football. Suddenly, television comes first.

Fans expressed their disagreement over how the league was resumed. "Our money is more important than your health — Bundesliga at any cost!" read a series of satirical advertisements pasted on walls in Cologne on Saturday morning. Some fans had positioned a couch outside Cologne's ground and spray-painted it with the words: "Stadium, not sofa!" Later, a banner draped across the empty terrace in Augsburg proclaimed: "Football will live — your business is sick!"

The criticisms aren't new; German fans have been consistently highlighting the more questionable aspects of "modern football" for years. Ahead of the restart, they said "ghost games were not a solution" and "football belongs in quarantine."

The fact that the league's very survival in its current form is dependent upon broadcasting income to cover the clubs' vast outgoings is seen as evidence that something is fundamentally wrong. The fear is that, should this model continue to control the future direction of German football, there will be no German football as we know it.

In its place, a socially-distant imitation of the Premier League might exist, one bereft of the social responsibility which makes Germany's football culture unique.

'You call that humility?'

It's to the credit of the DFL that it recognized that social responsibility when lobbying for football's return.

Chief executive Christian Seifert, well aware of professional football's reputation among the public at large, has made a conscious effort not to be seen demanding special treatment. He argued legitimately that football is an industry trying to protect itself and its employees like any other.

But that humility disappeared the moment Bundesliga was cleared for takeoff. Salomon Kalou filmed his Hertha Berlin teammates not sticking to social distancing regulations, Cologne muzzled midfielder Birger Verstraete for voicing criticism, and Augsburg coach Heiko Herrlich went AWOL to get toothpaste.

Not to be left out, Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge boasted the league could have "billions of viewers," while Bundesliga clubs' English-language social media channels shamelessly began competing for the attention of football-starved fans abroad.

"The hypocrisy disgusts us," wrote two groups of Freiburg ultras in a statement. "You call that humility?"

RB Leipzig against Freiburg in their first game back after the restart
RB Leipzig against Freiburg in their first game back after the restartImage: Reuters/J. Woitas

It is fitting that Freiburg fans have been among those to speak out. Their opponents on Saturday were RB Leipzig, a fixture which perfectly symbolizes the crossroads at which the Bundesliga finds itself. On the one hand: Freiburg, a club which has been succeeding against the odds for years thanks to solid financial management. On the other: a franchise team which, for many, embodies the commercialization of the game.

"Without continuous commercialization, we wouldn't be in this predicament," the Freiburg ultras statement continued. "You wouldn't be reliant on TV money to pay seven-figure salaries and service debts, and we wouldn't have to watch a game against a soulless company team that only exists because of these very developments. Football must change radically."

The Bundesliga's return is a chance for the league to take center stage in a way it has never done before, but which image does it want to project? As it climbs to the top of the podium, albeit temporarily, it is also trying to keep its feet on the ground and connected to the football culture which makes is unique.

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d