This weekend, Germany restarts its football season after a two month hiatus, albeit behind closed-doors. The games will be broadcast around the world and many of us, including Rich and Morgan here at Roker Report, will be tuning in.
The success or otherwise of our friends and neighbours across the North Sea will surely have a bearing on the viability of the return of professional game in England.
It seems a little surreal that this is happening. Football fans around the world have been starved of top level action for over two months as societies everywhere try desperately to deal with the horrendous medical, social and economic consequences of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic.
To the objective eye, the future of a game involving 22 people kicking a ball around is a trivial concern and a distraction from the vital international effort to save lives. But it remains true that, for many millions of human beings football is an integral part of their communities and their identities.
As Arigo Sacchi famously said, “football is the most important of the least important things in life”. And so at 2.30pm on Saturday we will sit down at home to watch Borussia Dortmund play local rivals Schalke, in an almost empty stadium, with social distancing in place.
An Existential Crisis
On Friday, at a meeting of the English Football League, Sunderland’s owners joined forces with five others from the top half of League 1 to block moves to join League 2 and finish the season early due to coronavirus. This would have been done using an unweighted average points per game (PPG) mechanism, the result being that Sunderland would drop a place to finish eighth in the table, due to having played 36 games at an average of 1.64 points per game.
League 1 owners will meet again on Monday with the aim of making a final decision, but along with Peterborough United, Oxford United, Portsmouth and Fleetwood Town, Stewart Donald appears to be determined to finish the remaining fixtures of this season.
There are very real commercial implications should football in the top three flights of English football be cancelled altogether; broadcast deals collapse, clubs aren’t paid TV money, there’s then little cash to operate, clubs lose players as their contracts expire.
A lot has been said over the last few days about the precarious finances of the English game in general and of Sunderland in particular. Kieran Maguire of Liverpool University has, following his appearances on both the Wise Men Say and Roker Rapport podcast this week, subsequently identified himself as the podcast “grim reaper” of football clubs.
Sorry Jon, it’s no fun for me either. I’d love to be invited onto a show with some good financial news but last year has been Bury, Bolton, Coventry, Charlton, Northampton, Oldham and Sunderland. I’m the podcast equivalent of the grim reaper pic.twitter.com/cp2CFXO4I2— PriceOfFootball (@KieranMaguire) May 13, 2020
A likely consequence of the vital coronavirus lockdown and necessary social distancing measures is that some fans will lose their clubs.
Peterborough Chairman, Darragh MacAnthony, in his comments to Sky Sports News this week, said that the cost of playing the games is known, it’s a simple calculation really. Teams can forecast what they may have to pay out on tests, extra provisions for staff, and the usual match day expenses, minus the income of fans who will not be able to attend. Removing players and staff from furlough is another cost to consider, but again, this can be calculated and budgeted.
But, he claimed, the cost of not playing the games is also a massive unknown.
Just how much money does a club have to give back, or not actually receive, for the season to be curtailed; broadcasting revenue, season ticket refunds, and everything in between?
It’s a potential legal and financial mess that carries with it the risk that chairmen like MacAnthony and Donald will take a short term view, resting their sights firmly on completing the season in order to avoid the complications, and not the long term future of both their club and football itself.
If they get this wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic. It’s a very fine line. The ideal approach would be continuing the league as normal whenever it is safe to do so, when infection rates are negligible and the world feels a bit more normal.
But the commercial imperative is to play, and how safely and entertainingly it happens in in other leagues will be key.
Health & Safety
In Germany, as will be the case in England, football is going to be a testbed for the reopening of the economy. It is an industry that is being forced to change and adapt in order to operate safety and sustainably, find new ways of engaging audiences, new ways of marketing and monetising their products.
In a country where defiance and football go hand in hand, you get the feeling the perception of risk in Germany is now a lot lower. It was affected by the coronavirus before the UK, with cases reported early in February linked to skiers returning from the Swiss and Italian Alps.
Football was postponed in Germany six days earlier than in the UK on 13th March, though both countries took the decision when confirmed Covid-19 cases exceeded the 3,000 mark. They have, it seems, controlled the outbreak well and dealt effectively with cases, with a death rate of 9.48 death per 100,000 people as compared to the UK with 50.43 per 100,000 people.
Germany has found a way to make something happen. The different states of the German federation are each implementing slightly different controls on the return of the game, but the Bundestag has explicitly allowed the return of football, so there has been democratic authorisation for the return.
There are, as you might expect, tight and very specific conditions under which this weekend’s fixtures are proceeding; first and foremost it relies upon the country’s testing capacity to ensure that players, who are being tested twice weekly, are not infectious. It may help that the DLF has only two professional leagues, unlike in England where clubs are professional all the way down in tier seven, so fewer players and officials are involved in the process.
The clubs know that the future of the sport is on the line, and state that that player safety is paramount. The President of cult 2. Bundesliga club, FC St Pauli, Oke Göttlich said the club:
... supports the motion passed by the 36 clubs to resume playing in compliance with a detailed hygiene concept. We therefore welcome the decision for the purposes of the welfare of the club. It is now down to all of us to conduct ourselves accordingly in taking this opportunity to ensure the survival of every club.
The “detailed hygiene concept” has involved players staying in quarantine, training in small groups and rules to prevent spitting during play brought in. Yet, despite all these measures, two games have already had to be suspended after players, including two at Dynamo Dresden whose status in the 2. Bundesliga is under threat, tested positive for the virus.
If there are already questions over the safety and sporting integrity of staging the games, reported complaints that players have not been properly consulted about the restart won't surprise anyone, in the same way as many factory workers won’t be consulted if and when the plant resumes full production. But it should be a much bigger concern.
Many will rightly question why footballers should be managed differently to the rest of society. Everyone should have the basic right to be protected from harm at work, and no individual should be forced into a position of risking infection to put food on the table.
It doesn't bode well.
The Spector of Ghost-games
We are both part of the growing number of British football fans taking an interest in the German game, often looking on with envy at their model and fan culture. Despite both of us having visited all four corners of the country, speaking the language to varying degrees and Morgan having taking in a Bundesliga match in Hamburg as recently as February, we wouldn’t claim to be Bundesliga experts. But if we’ve learned one thing about German footballing culture, it’s that fans are at the very heart of the game, and the moment any broadcaster or oligarch tries to take that away, the enthusiasm for protest ensures Fußball ends up back in the hands of those fans.
Football, any sport, is only in existence because of the fans, both those in a stadium and, more so due to mammoth television deals, those paying subscriptions to broadcasters. And they don’t pay for a half baked product. Restarting football in the current climate isn’t going to deliver anything close to what it was before and it feels sad that the league will start again without those fans in attendance.
There has been vocal opposition from some of the the club’s ultras at the spector of Geisterspiele; soulless pedestrian affairs with no passion or excitement. But many of us, if we’re honest, will be selfishly looking forward to the return of football, and the combination of German death rates being a lot lower than the UK, and sign of revolt from Bundesliga players, we might see a glimpse of the excellent competition it was prior to the pandemic.
It will be interesting to see whether, and if so how the different clubs, will try to create an atmosphere for the players in the stadiums and the fans at home. Borussia Mönchengladbach have come up with a novel way of bringing the fans images into the ground by printing out thousands of cardboard cut-outs of photos sent in from supporters to place in the stands. Whether it will catch on or not is another matter, but there's certainly a need to bring colour and sound to the grounds. Football is an entertainment industry at its core after all.
Decisions To Be Made
Before the final Bundesliga game of the round kicks off on Monday evening, the clubs in English League 1 will meet again. Precisely what this experiment in live football with no fans means for the EFL isn’t yet known, but Chief Executive Rick Parry has spoken of the need for the financial restructuring of the game and for the foreseeable future that will revolve around the income live broadcast audiences. How will they make it an engaging spectacle on TV? How will clubs outside the Premier League bring in additional money?
In Germany reform has come in the form of regionalisation of the third and fourth tiers, where clubs the stature of Röt-Weiss Essen - of Sunderland’s twin town - now reside, from next season with the current campaign ended. It’s unlikely at this stage that the EFL is going to decide on a wide-ranging reorganisation of the game post Covid-19, the crucial question for them is whether the TV audiences will be there for Burton and Fleetwood.
In England, the absolute deadline we face is 31 July when the severance period at the end of many player expired contracts ends. That’s when Sunderland and others will no longer employ a number of their current playing squad, including Jon McLaughlin, rendering the sporting contest of the leagues all but dead.
Unless and extraordinary deal can be struck with the players through the PFA, all ELF games will have to be played - safely - by then. The successful return of football may serve as a barometer for the relative success of the different governments and football authorities responses to Covid-19 and of the relaxation of lockdown measures.
This virus is exposing systemic weaknesses and highlighting international disparities. The issue of the resumption of League One, or any league for that matter, is being analysed to the point of paralysis. Ultimately, it remains the case that in the UK that consensus is that if football can’t be played safely without a modification to the rules, then it shouldn’t be played at all.
It isn’t purist to think this is the most reasonable view. Should players turn their face away when involved in a tackle? We’re not doctors, no medical minds, but we’d imagine a player turning away their face in contact reduces the risk of transmitting the virus between two players who’ve been quarantined and tested by less than 0.1 per cent, whilst vastly increasing the chance of a serious injury. And would they be cautioned for failing to comply?
So much is left uncertain and, due to the rate that the virus continues to spread, it will be very surprising if we do have a full fixture list of games completed here, or in Germany, at any point in May. It will be even more surprising if they are still playing in June.
One thing is for sure, the games will be a lot worse without the fans. Morgan was lucky enough to see first hand just what a St Pauli victory meant to their players and their fans in Hamburg’s famous Volksparkstadion in February, and losing that will see the game lose its heart. We see that no differently with football in England.