If we are choosing to be cynical by looking at things from a purely marketing perspective, the Bundesliga has stolen a march on every other major football league by being the first to restart. Of course, this is going to be a boon for the league. People who would have been otherwise invested in other leagues, or even other sports, might become Bundesliga fans over the next month or so.
However, there is something important here, something that goes beyond the pure dollars—or rather euros—and cents of the matter: the Bundesliga is only able to return because of quick action by the German government, and thorough planning by the league, clubs, and local authorities.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in Europe, Germany was quick to act, implement, and even escalate measures designed to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Those measures kept the number of new cases per day to under 7,000 at its peak, and now fewer than 1,000 new cases per day on average.
Just shy of 8,000* Germans have died—which is still an unthinkably large number—but the situation in the UK remains far worse. Despite having roughly a similar number of confirmed cases: 175,233 in Germany to 238,004 in the UK, the pandemic has been far deadlier for the latter. Over 34,000 people have died across the UK, and the number of new cases per day still remains around 3,500 on average.
The point of these gruesome details is that the Bundesliga is stating again because the Bundesliga can start again. Because the situation in larger society will allow it. For those who wish for football to restart in England—often for politically expedient reasons—it is rather putting the cart before the horse. The situation—the curve—in these two countries are radically different, and they have been for weeks, if not months.
This is not to say that restarting isn’t without risks. There are always risks associated with sport. For players and fans alike, as we Liverpool fans know too well. Of course there is Hillsborough, but we don’t have to look that far into our past: while the rest of Europe was shutting down, countless Liverpudlians—at the match and beyond—were put at risk when the Champions League match with Atletico Madrid went ahead as scheduled. In front of a sold-out Anfield, no less.
Over the years, we have tried our best to mitigate the biggest risks associated with sport. Gone are the days of shaking off a hangover and slipping on your boots to kick lumps out of your local rivals. Today’s professional athletes now have serious training regimens, individualized diets and physical therapy, and access to the best healthcare and sports science money can buy. Even during non-pandemic times, we have medics and ambulances readily available in case of serious injury or medical complications.
Still, serious injuries happen. Sometimes those injuries end careers. Or leave players with severe, long-lasting injuries or disabilities. And on rare occasions, athletes even die playing the game they love.
The COVID-19 novel coronavirus is a new kind of risk. It is not a risk to be taken lightly, but equally, it is not a risk that should paralyze us from taking productive steps forward when possible.
While professional athletes are not the most at-risk group for serious illness from this virus, there are still inherent risks involved. Germany is doing the best that they can to implement testing prior to matches, and postponing matches if players test positive. These measures will hopefully protect the players and society at large. And they still might not be enough. Time will tell. Until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available, any concept of “safety” will only be in relative terms, and the risks involved in playing must be carefully weighed by all involved.
Is it still too soon for football in Germany to return? We will see.
If the Bundesliga can finish the season under the new restrictions, it will only be because of the larger social and political context. Once again, it is a powerful reminder that sports and politics are inherently interwoven. Any attempts to “follow suit” by the Premier League without first addressing the underlying problems in England would be unlikely to be as successful. There is a real risk here, not from the virus, but from people learning the wrong lessons from the return of the Bundesliga.
For now, let’s enjoy the return of real, live football. We have a Ruhr Derby, Dortmund-Schalke, to look forward to, future Liverpool striker Timo Werner and Leipzig take on Freiburg, and Frankfurt hosts Borussia Mönchengladbach in the late match. I, for one, cannot wait.
*All numbers are from the time of writing, the morning of May 16th, 2020, using the latest data from John Hopkins.