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Soccer kicks off in Germany as first major sports league reopens amid pandemic

“Whenever you can get back out on the pitch with a ball, you're happy,” U.S. international Tyler Adams told NBC News.
Image: FC Bayern Muenchen v RB Leipzig - Bundesliga
U.S. international Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig battles for possession with Thiago Alcantara of Bayern Munich during a Bundesliga match in February. Alex Grimm / Bongarts/Getty Images file

BERLIN — As Germany’s top soccer league known as the Bundesliga prepares to kick off for the first time since the country entered coronavirus lockdown, 10-time U.S. international Tyler Adams admitted there was one thing he had not thought about — how he will celebrate if he scores for his RB Leipzig team Saturday.

“I haven’t thought about anything yet,” the 21-year-old midfielder told NBC News, adding that he would hopefully get a goal against SC Freiburg. “That’s my first concern and then we’ll see,” he said.

In the week leading up to the game, Adams has been living in quarantine with his teammates at his team’s training ground in the eastern German city of Leipzig.

“We have the luxury of having our own rooms. It's almost like a home… it's been nice, you know, we have our teammates, there's a lot to do here,” he said.

“As a professional soccer player, you get a little bit anxious when you don’t have games to work towards on the weekend,” he added. “So now, we’re back in training and seeing our teammates again, we’re full of excitement.”

Like players from the other 18 Bundesliga top-flight clubs as well as the referees, Adams and his teammates will be subject to strict hygiene regulations, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

“They’ll be tested once or twice a week, depending on how many games they have,” he said, adding that there could be random medical examinations to check that they are following the rules.

As the Bundesliga is the first major sports league to return, others including the NFL, MLB and the NBA in the United States “are going to learn” from the experience, he said, although he admitted each one “was a little bit different.”

One German team, Dynamo Dresden, has already had to postpone its first two games of the restart after its squad was quarantined for two weeks, when two members tested positive for COVID-19.

Perhaps crucially for the Bundesliga, which has the highest average attendance of any soccer league in the world, the stadiums will have no fans for the remaining nine games of the season.

While teams will play their fixtures at home and away, around 300 people including players, coaches, officials and members of the media will be allowed in the stadiums.

Dubbed “ghost games,” some fans are unhappy they cannot attend.

“Football without fans is not real football,” Oliver Schulte, 48, said using the European word for soccer.

Schulte, a member of the EFC Kurstadt Adler Wiesbaden, a fan group which supports the Eintracht Frankfurt team, added that he thought it “would be a very sad thing” to sit at home and watch his team play Borussia Monchengladbach on television, “without any cheering and yelling people in the stadium.”

Under current German regulations, he said, he could only invite one person to his house to watch the game, “so it was sad,” although “we will try and create our own stadium atmosphere.”

He added that he might join up with some friends online to discuss the game, although he joked they would likely “complain” about the fact they were not allowed to attend. Elsewhere, some teams have come up with novel ways to replicate the experience of a full stadium.

For around $20, fans of Borussia Monchengladbach or their rivals will be able to buy cardboard cutouts of themselves, which will be placed in their Borussia-Park stadium.

Other suggestions include apps that allow fans to replicate noise from their sofa into the stadium. However, this was met with derision by a group of fans from Germany’s most successful team, FC Bayern Munich, who wrote in a blog post earlier this month that an artificial soundtrack was “wrong.”

“Professional football is a social phenomenon that lives from the encounters between people, the shared enthusiasm in the stadium, but also, for example, in the bars of the city.”

Despite the complaints, Lutz Pfannenstiel, the executive sporting director of the Fortuna Dusseldorf club, insisted it was “economically very important to get the league going.”

With well over a third of the Bundesliga’s 4.8 billion euro ($5.2 billion) revenue coming from media and advertising money, according to the latest data from the German Football League, Pfannenstiel said not finishing the competition “would have a big impact” on the clubs and the businesses tied to them.

“From the security companies to the cleaning companies, to the maintenance companies, to the guys selling the bratwurst and the beer. This is the football workforce,” he said, adding that around 60,000 jobs would be affected.

While fans would miss out in the short term, he said that finishing the season would help clubs to avoid “long-term damage.”

He added that he also believed football was “emotionally important.”

Image German soccer
Cologne's Jhon Cordoba and Moenchengladbach's Tobias Strobl challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga match in March.Martin Meissner / AP file

“Millions of people all over the world love football,” he said. “They are currently sitting at home with nothing to look forward to, so football can bring joy and hope to them.”

With the Bundesliga being the world’s first major sporting competition to return, Adalja said others could learn from it and “come up with best practices that they can apply… with the caveat that nothing is going to be risk-free in the air of the pandemic.”

He added: “It's important to remember that there's not going to be black or white answers from any of these scenarios, that there is going to be risk with any activity you take and what we're trying to find is the best path forward.”

For Adams however, it was crucial to get back onto the field.

“We’re almost the guinea pigs in a sense,” he said, adding that he hoped other sports like the NBA and the NFL would be able to use the Bundesliga as a model for them to resume.

On game day itself, he said, he would have to wear a mask on the bus and could only take it off for a certain amount of time before the game kicked off.

“It's going to be interesting now with no spectators, how the atmosphere is, those kinds of things, but you know, whenever you can get back out on the pitch with a ball, you're happy.”

Henry Austin reported from London.