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How Germany’s Bundesliga completed its season amid coronavirus

The first European soccer league to resume play can credit in part virus testing and medical protocols that formed a blueprint for sports around the world.

DUSSELDORF, Germany — There was a trophy, there were medals, and there were commemorative T-shirts. Only the fans were missing as Bayern Munich celebrated its title Saturday and the Bundesliga breathed a sigh of relief. Its restart plan worked.

“This isn’t the Bundesliga that we wanted or that we love, but it was the only Bundesliga that was possible,” league CEO Christian Seifert said.

When the Bundesliga restarted May 16, it was more than a month ahead of other major European soccer leagues. The June 27 finish leaves Bayern Munich and Leipzig with weeks of free time before the Champions League returns in August.

The Bundesliga’s virus testing and medical protocols formed a blueprint for other leagues and sports around the world. Unlike most other European countries, Germany also restarted its women’s league, won by Wolfsburg.

A season like no other

The games were eerie as players’ shouts echoed off empty concrete terraces and the colorful fan displays were gone. Borussia Dortmund set the tone on the first day back when its players lined up to salute the empty “Yellow Wall,” usually one of Europe’s loudest and best-known fan sections.

The results were much like those of any other recent season. Bayern recovered from early season troubles to win its eighth straight title with two games to spare, then held a muted party in private without players’ families and the usual beer-throwing antics. Dortmund fought hard with an exciting young team but fell short.

The coronavirus brought pain to some players, at least indirectly. Injuries were more common after the long break from training, and second-division Dynamo Dresden had to play eight games in 22 days after positive coronavirus tests delayed its return to action.

“Do you think that anyone in the league spent a single second thinking about what’s going on in our heads?” Dresden player Chris Lowe said in a tearful, expletive-filled televised interview railing against the German league last week.

Now Bayern and Leipzig face weeks without games before the Champions League resumes in August, though Bayern still has a cup final Saturday against Bayer Leverkusen. There is also a two-leg promotion-relegation playoff that has to be played.

Virus testing

Almost immediately after suspending play March 13, Germany quietly began preparing for a restart.

It helped that Germany was a world leader in ramping up its coronavirus testing. That meant the league could use as many as 25,000 coronavirus tests to finish the season without putting a serious dent in the country’s testing capability.

The deputy head of Germany’s main public health body was opposed, saying tests should be saved for people suspected of having the virus.

At one stage the restart looked in doubt after positive tests for players or staff at first-division Cologne and second-division Dresden and Erzgebirge Aue. Polls consistently showed that most Germans were opposed to the restart. Detailed planning by the league for testing and training helped convince key politicians.

The league has stopped publishing testing figures, though no top-division team has reported an infection since play resumed.

The only confirmed case of a player missing a Bundesliga game because of the coronavirus was when veteran Werder Bremen striker Claudio Pizarro was quarantined following a positive test for his daughter, as he later told the local Weser Kurier newspaper. He was not found to have the virus.

Injuries abound

The restart was accompanied by a rash of minor injuries, mostly strains of players’ soft tissue. That left Borussia Dortmund fielding a less-than-ideal starting lineup in its title-deciding 1-0 loss to Bayern when Jadon Sancho and Emre Can were fit enough to only come off the bench as substitutes.

Bundesliga players spent less time training at home than their counterparts in England and Spain because of Germany’s quick move to socially distanced training in groups.

Some used the break to shake off injuries and return fully fit. Top scorer Robert Lewandowski, his Bayern teammate Kingsley Coman and Leipzig midfielder Kevin Kampl made an impact after returning to fitness in the spring.

Obedient fans

German police, like those in England and elsewhere, feared fans would gather around stadiums and spread the coronavirus.

When Dortmund hosted local rival Schalke on the first day back May 16, a few curious locals in club colors wandered by but soon left. A group of about 10 Polish warehouse workers constituted the largest crowd as they posed for photos in front of a club logo and played keep-ups with a ball.

There was no repeat from the Bundesliga’s brief experiment with empty-stadium games before the shutdown, when hundreds of Borussia Monchengladbach supporters chanted outside their team’s stadium during a win over Cologne.

Instead, German fans mostly followed the rules and watched at home, as shown by record audiences for broadcaster Sky on the first weekend back. Bayern’s title win also didn’t prompt the kind of street partying seen in England after Liverpool’s long-awaited Premier League championship last week.

TV rights fall

Germany found itself leading the way commercially, too. It was the first big European league trying to limit the financial damage to its TV deals during the pandemic.

Nearly two decades of soaring TV rights values ground to a halt with the new domestic broadcast packages signed Monday worth $5 billion over four seasons from 2021-25. That’s about $67.7 million less per season than the current agreement.

Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said other leagues will soon feel the pain.

“If you look at the problems that are still unresolved with the TV broadcasters in, for example, England, Italy or Spain, then we can still be very satisfied here in Germany,” Rummenigge said Tuesday in a video on the club’s LinkedIn page.

Italy’s Serie A expects to launch a TV rights tender in September for 2021-24. The English Premier League and Spanish La Liga are heading into talks on new domestic TV rights cycles from 2022.

Dividing a smaller TV-rights deal among the same number of teams is causing tension in Germany. Many smaller clubs want a more even split and fewer advantages for teams that finish high up the table.

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