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The Bundesliga’s plan to finish its season puts lives at risk

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The Bundesliga wants to restart its season in May, but a pandemic is not the time for games.

Photo of Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert speaking while seated at a press conference

Out of the countries suffering from the pandemic of Covid-19, Germany seems to be handling the problem better than most. Thanks to aggressive testing and a well-maintained healthcare system, it has managed to keep the percentage of fatalities relatively low, though more than 100,000 people have tested positive as of Wednesday morning.

According to the New York Times, the Bundesliga is now planning to resume action in early May by playing games in empty stadiums. Teams from the top two divisions of German football have begun training again. And, per the report, the Bundesliga has a delicate and intricate plan to realize their ambitions:

In working out a plan, the Bundesliga estimates that 240 people, including players, coaching and medical staff, match officials and production staff will be needed for each game. Two groups have been set up to deal with the practicalities of staging the game: one to set up uniform gameday regulations and the other, perhaps more important, to devise a hygiene plan for training and games and to work out what measures to take if a player tests positive.

The Bundesliga’s plan and timetable is sure to inspire other leagues around the world that are desperate to get back to competition. It is also surely welcome news for fans around the world who are desperate for any type of football. The lack of sports has made these bleak times even bleaker. We can’t even endure this period with the escape and joy provided by good competition.

Yet, after reading through the explanation by Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert, it’s clear that the plan is an act of desperation, and might not be a good idea. If the Bundesliga does not finish its season, then it will incur heavy financial losses, which would put many clubs in the second division, and a few in the top division, in jeopardy. Via the Times:

While its clubs are some of the healthiest in Europe, not finishing the season would lead to an enormous cost. Seifert put the figure at as much as 750 million euros, or about $816.5 million, a figure that compares to forecasts of 1 billion euros of losses in Spain’s top division, La Liga, and a minimum of 1 billion pounds, or about $1.24 billion, for the Premier League.

There is a dangerous problem here. At the beginning of this pandemic, when global football was dallying on suspending competitions, many leagues tried to play behind closed doors while attempting to isolate the players and necessary staff for the games, just as the Bundesliga would like to do. That plan failed. Players tested positive and the virus spread quickly enough that federations were forced to postpone.

It’s fair to note that the original postponements happened before adequate testing was available, and Germany’s handling of the virus feels like a firm foundation to build on. But the plan is still very fragile. Unless those 240 people for each game can be isolated from their families and contact with anyone and anything that could possibly infect them, it will result in failure. One individual with the virus could infect enough players and staff to unravel everything. And the level of isolation necessary to keep 240 people away from the world would present its own mental health and labor problems for the league.

It is understandable that leagues like the Bundesliga want to finish their seasons. There is a lot of money involved. People want sports back and the leagues have sponsorship obligations to fulfill. But we are living through a difficult time that is not suitable for games. The number of people needed to put on one match, and the fact that players spend much of their time in competition in bodily contact with each other, means that sports are particularly conducive to spreading the virus.

Germany might have a low number of fatalities compared to its total number of positive cases, but those positive cases are still growing. Even countries that have managed to curb the spread of the virus are experiencing second outbreaks. Without a vaccine, the most that countries can do is get the situation down to a manageable level.

Before the league was suspended, Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge made a controversial statement in support of games continuing to be played behind closed doors as the virus spread across the country, saying:

”At the end of the day, it’s about finances and the big outstanding TV payments to the clubs. I think it’s right that under the current conditions, the games this weekend take place.”

Rummenigge made it clear that the league is willing to put the lives of players and staff at risk to fulfill those financial obligations. At some point games will be played again, and it’s possible that the Bundesliga will go through with their plan successfully. If they do it will give leagues around the world a blueprint for how to play sports again. But in their desperation to mitigate the financial impact of this pandemic, it can’t be forgotten what is truly at stake here. This is a matter of public and individual health. All it would take is one fatality for this plan to become an unforgivable disaster.