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Bundesliga choosing profits over people

May 6, 2020

The Bundesliga is free to resume in the second half of May, following a government announcement. Its return is being sold as an economic necessity, but it's a gamble that puts many at risk, writes DW's Michael da Silva.

Fussball, Bundesliga | Borussia Mönchengladbach - 1. FC Köln
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Last weekend, Montpellier midfielder Junior Sambia was discharged from hospital. The Frenchman had been complaining of breathing and digestive problems two weeks earlier and, when his condition rapidly declined, he was rushed to intensive care and placed into a medically induced coma. 

On a ventilator and unable to breathe unassisted, the 23-year-old was fighting for his life. A few agonizing days later, Sambia regained consciousness and is now continuing his recovery at home. The incident has put things into perspective for Montpellier’s president, Lauren Nicollin.

"It was a great joy to hear Junior’s voice, he made us very afraid last week," Nicollin said. "The resumption of Ligue 1 had become anecdotal, because I felt a lot of worries in my players. This is also why there was probably more philosophy on my side, compared with the other presidents. It put much more into perspective."

The extent of any implications to Sambia’s long-term health is not yet known, but he is in no state to return to the game. Still, the game is returning to the players, whether they like it or not. Not in France, but here in Germany.

May restart on the cards

On Wednesday, a government announcement allowed the Bundesliga to restart in the second half of May, after concluding that a one-week quarantine period for all playing and non-playing staff was sufficient before the league’s recommencement. 

The DFL has drawn up a hygiene protocol, which mandates a new set of rules that will apply on matchdays, detailing that the ball must be disinfected before and throughout the game, all players must have two negative tests before playing and, interestingly, that clubs should ensure they have big squads to see out the season, suggesting it sees any positive tests only as collateral damage.

Like any business, the DFL has a product to protect. But the DFL isn’t a selling cups of coffee or hot dogs here. They are overseeing a football league that will plainly be unable to guarantee everyone’s safety, even behind closed doors. 'Ghost games' will inevitably lead to more COVID-19 cases and potentially even fatalities, despite strict monitoring in place around the stadiums.

Resuming this month has been sold as a necessity to keep the game from entering a financial black hole, but really it’s only Germany’s most impoverished clubs whose existence is threatened by a lack of matchday income. In the lower echelons, this makes up a far higher percentage of total revenue than for the top clubs, for whom it usually accounts for less than five percent.

Double-edged sword

The likes of Bayern Munich simply need to honor their end of the lucrative TV deals to keep paying their players offensive salaries to keep fit in their private gyms. Good work, if you can get it. This isn’t about financial survival at the top end of the game though, as much as it is being sold as such by DFL CEO Christian Seifert.

While players deserve sympathy for being instructed to return to work in unsafe conditions, its their silent greed that has created the pressing desire to return in the first place. Seifert could have addressed this by encouraging players to take pay cuts to help their clubs and poorer clubs, but has instead taken the route of putting everyone at risk – he will live or die by that decision.

Player wages account for roughly 75 percent of clubs' expenditures making this by far the biggest single outgoing for clubs. Beyond a moral obligation, most players could comfortably forfeit a big chunk of their salaries and, in doing so, relieve the pressure that clubs say they are feeling. And while some players are already forgoing some of their salaries through club or community-led initiatives, this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

All eyes on the Bundesliga

While Germany is better placed than most countries to even consider a resumption to sports, the Bundesliga’s return was not a unanimous decision. The states of Bremen and Rhineland-Palatinate, which contain the Bundesliga clubs Werder Bremen and Mainz, were opposed to the decision, which comes days after 10 Bundesliga players tested positive and Hertha Berlin’s Salomon Kalou was seen openly flouting social-distancing rules in a Facebook live video that can only generously be described as ill-advised.

Besides the South Korean baseball league, which resumed last Tuesday, and UFC, which will return this Saturday against the advice of every respected public health expert, the Bundesliga is the biggest major league or competition in the world to announce its comeback.

Bayern Munich captain Manuel Neuer wrote in Wednesday’s edition of the German broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the Bundesliga must now lead by example. As a nation, Germany has won praise internationally for how it has dealt with the coronavirus, but all it takes is another case like Junior Sambia's for everything to come crashing down. The DFL is taking a huge gamble, and Seifert is staking his career on it.