Berlin (AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders on Wednesday gave the Bundesliga the green light to restart behind closed doors from mid-May after weeks of shutdown imposed to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The political blessing makes the German top-flight the first of Europe’s five major leagues to return to the field.
«Matches will be allowed under the approved rules,» said Merkel at a press conference in Berlin, referring to a plan by the German Football League (DFL) for the Bundesliga to resume in empty stadiums and with players regularly tested.
Permission was granted on condition that strict guidelines are followed — with a hygiene officer appointed to each team — to prevent contagion of the virus.
The DFL must now set a date for the restart with either the weekend of May 16-17 or the following weekend earmarked.
Representatives from the clubs will finalise those details in a videoconference on Thursday.
With 13 of the 36 teams in Germany’s top two divisions reportedly on the brink of bankruptcy, the league desperately needs to claim around 300 million euros ($325 million) from TV contracts if the season is completed.
– 10 cases of coronavirus –
The season was suspended in mid-March. The league has long urged restarting play, which it says is vital for a sector that employs 56,000 people in Germany.
Teams returned to training on April 6 although sessions have followed stringent social distancing rules and players are not allowed to change at training grounds.
The league says its intensive testing plan allows matches to be relaunched with low risk to health.
So far, clubs in the top two divisions have returned 10 positive results for coronavirus from 1,724 tests since training resumed.
Three of the cases are known to be from the Cologne club and two from Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Health Minister Jens Spahn has argued that the testing regime «makes sense and can serve as an example for other forms of professional sport,» although he warned «it has to be lived up to».
The league and politicians reacted with consternation when Hertha Berlin player Salomon Kalou filmed himself shaking hands with teammates this week, flaunting the social distancing rules that clubs have put in place.
«The video has done the German league and professional football a disservice,» Anja Stahmann, who chairs Germany’s regional sports ministers, told RBB radio on Wednesday.
Hertha have suspended Kalou, and the 34-year-old former Chelsea player has apologised profusely.
Bayern Munich, seeking their eighth consecutive title, were four points clear at the top of the table when play was halted.
– Different approaches –
Leagues across Europe are taking different approaches to the unprecedented crisis.
The French league announced last week it will not resume the Ligue 1 or Ligue 2 seasons, with Paris Saint-Germain being awarded the top-flight title.
The Netherlands abandoned its season a week earlier.
The Premier League, Europe’s richest league, has said it aims to restart in June, but deep differences have emerged over plans to use neutral stadiums.
Players in Italy’s Serie A returned to training this week and in Spain, Barcelona say players will undergo coronavirus tests on Wednesday as La Liga clubs begin restricted training ahead of a proposed resumption of the season next month.
The Serbian and Turkish leagues have also announced plans for matches to resume.