While most of the world’s sports leagues remain shuttered indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany’s top-tier soccer league is planning to return in May.
It’s more than just hopeful chatter, or a way to keep attention on the Bundesliga, which is a top-three league in terms of quality but also far less popular than England’s Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. The 36 teams that comprise Germany’s first and second divisions returned to training earlier this week. The plan, CEO Christian Seifert told the New York Times, is for games to resume with no fans in attendance early next month.
From a distance, a May restart seems to be wildly optimistic, if not irresponsibly so. The NBA and NHL are hoping to resume by late summer. Talk of the NFL beginning its season as scheduled Sept. 10 has consumed recent sports conversation in the United States. President Donald Trump has weighed in, while others, including the NFL’s chief medical officer, have far less confidence that sports will be business as usual by then.
“I'm not anticipating that happening in this state,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in reference to games being played in packed stadiums by the fall.
In Santa Clara, county executive Dr. Jeffrey Smith told the Los Angeles Times that he doesn’t see sports returning until at least November. “We’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving,” Smith said.
Even in Germany, a lot can happen between now and May. Things have changed quickly. The Premier League originally intended to play on after other leagues had gone dark, but immediately reversed course after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea attacker Callum Hudson-Odoi tested positive for the coronavirus. MLS announced a 30-day suspension on March 12 before pushing it even further back to May 10. (Another extension is likely, with multiple sources telling Yahoo Sports that the new target date is mid-July.)
Seifert acknowledged that the situation remains fluid. He said that conversations “with the government about when we will be able to play again” will continue. Still, if any sports enterprise anywhere is positioned to begin playing in the near future, the Bundesliga is probably it.
The nation of 83 million has handled the coronavirus crisis better than just about any other country. While Germany has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than all but the USA, Italy, Spain and France, the fatality rate stood earlier this week at just 1.6 percent, or about half the current death rate in the U.S. Meantime, Italy was at an unthinkable 12.6 percent. Spain, France and England aren’t far behind.
All those starkly different realities get to the heart of the matter: Only the particular circumstances of a particular country will determine when games can resume there. Even if the Bundesliga is able to come back and complete its season, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Premier League or Italy’s Serie A or France’s Ligue 1 will be able to follow suit in short order. When it comes to an international competition like the Champions League, the hurdles are even greater.
It would be wonderful for Germany if the Bundesliga could become the first major sports league to return after this coronavirus-induced layoff. “We are part of the culture in the country,” Seifert said. “People long to get back a short piece of normal life.”
That sentiment is understandable. And if German soccer is able to re-open (and stay open), it will undoubtedly provide a badly needed glimmer of hope to sports leagues and fans everywhere else.
Yet there’s also a danger in seeing it as the first of many dominos to fall. As much as every country on Earth has been touched by this pandemic, it hasn’t impacted them all equally. Each nation has unique social constructs, sizes, climates and population centers. Each government has responded differently. Those are the factors that will determine when life will get back to normal in a particular place. What’s happening elsewhere largely won’t.
Sports will come back eventually. The Bundesliga’s potential return should be celebrated as good news. But it would be wrong to assume that other leagues will soon follow.
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