The Bundesliga Is Back. Why Isn’t the Premier League?

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Every morning, when Bayer Leverkusen’s players wake up in the hotel requisitioned for their weeklong quarantine, they have a list of six questions to answer. They must tell the club how they slept, how they are feeling, whether any of the telltale symptoms of the coronavirus have set in overnight.

Once they have answered satisfactorily, the players eat breakfast — on their own — and head to the club’s training facility. Before entering, they have their body temperatures assessed by a scanner, in case anyone is running an undetected fever.

Once they pass that entrance exam, they head to the changing room: not the communal one, the one they would ordinarily use, but one they share with only a couple of teammates. They do not need to worry about showering afterward. The instructions on that are clear, too. They are to wash up back in their rooms at the hotel.

For all of the players, as it is for everyone involved in the reopening of the Bundesliga this weekend, this is uncharted territory. It is 65 days since the Bundesliga went into hibernation, along with every other major sports league on the planet. On Saturday, at 3:30 p.m. local time, it plans to become the first major league back, the first high-profile competition in any sport in the age of coronavirus.

Even now, even when the return is so close, it feels like a delicate, fragile thing, one that could yet be derailed at the very last moment by a raft of positive tests, by an uptick in Germany’s infection rate, by a change of heart by the government. Those involved in bringing the league to this point know how hard it has been to pick a way through when there is no map to use as a guide.

“It has been a lot of work, and a lot of unusual work,” said Simon Rolfes, Leverkusen’s sporting director. “We planned for the start, and then everything changes in three days, and the league gives some new advice: the plans get more detailed, more precise.” Planning, he said, started in earnest four weeks ago. “But four weeks, now, feels like a year or two,” he said.

That the Bundesliga has managed to get this close — closer than any of its peers — is rooted, to some extent, in the league’s sense of purpose, its unified vision, its leadership.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern Munich’s chairman, argued that the “good collaboration” between teams had helped the league identify a “clear concept” for its return. Rolfes was quick to credit the role that Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga’s chief executive, had played in helping craft a solution. The players, meanwhile, are largely content with the arrangements.

“We have had one or two who are a bit concerned,” Rolfes said. “That is natural. But they feel safe here. A lot of them are glad to be in Germany. They feel the club will take care of them.”

To some people — perhaps to many — that will feel trite, almost venal, under the circumstances. Now, after all, is not necessarily the time for games. It is too early, too soon, for soccer to be played again, while a global pandemic still rages, while the death toll continues to mount. There are plenty, including many of Germany’s organized fan groups, who believe the Bundesliga has hurried back with money as its only motivation.

That is not, in fairness, entirely wrong. “As an industry, we will have big financial problems not only this season but in the next seasons, too,” Rummenigge said. “The loss of ticketing, of corporate partners, of sponsors — it will have a huge impact, and maybe one the big clubs should worry about the most.” The Bundesliga has, without question, been driven by a desire to staunch those losses as much as possible.

By returning first, it has turned a problem into an opportunity. The Bundesliga has, for many years, sought to end the primacy of England’s Premier League in soccer’s global landscape.

Its clubs have opened offices across the world, trying to pry open new markets and improve their commercial performance. It has proved adept and innovative at managing its broadcasting arrangements. (At one time, the Bundesliga received more than one sotto voce rebuke from the Premier League, the single most marketed product in history, about what the latter perceived to be the Bundesliga’s undignified attempts to raise its profile in Britain.)

Now, it has that chance. “There is an advantage of being the first back,” Rummenigge said. The Bundesliga is not back as it would wish to be, of course — there will be no fans in the stadiums, robbing the league of its atmosphere — but still: This weekend, and for a few weekends yet, the eyes of the world will be on Germany.

Tempting as that narrative is, it does not quite tell the whole story. Yes, the Bundesliga is thinking about money, but not out of individual acquisitiveness so much as out of collective fear. As Rummenigge put it: The hiatus made it inevitable that German soccer would face a crisis. The league’s returning is simply a way to avert disaster.

But most important, the return of the Bundesliga is not so much proof of German soccer’s greed or its smooth running as it is a testament to a broader political reality. “We can be the first to start again because of our health care system,” Rolfes said. “We are thankful to have the opportunity.”

Rummenigge lays much of the credit for the Bundesliga’s return at the door of Germany’s government. “We have to say thank you to our politicians,” he said. It is only because of the decisions they have made, in his mind, that the impact of the virus was limited and that soccer was in a position even to contemplate its return.

Germany, after all, has recorded a quarter of the deaths that Britain has, despite a larger population, and a tenth of the total in the United States. It was among the first European countries to start lifting stringent lockdown restrictions, and some version of normal life is at least visible there in a way that it is not, say, in either Britain or the United States.

It is worth considering that as you settle in to watch top-flight soccer for the first time in 65 days. Perhaps you feel that the Bundesliga has come back too soon. Perhaps you fear there will be a raft of infections, and the curtain will have to fall again.

Or, perhaps, you will feel that soccer, and sports in general, is possible in the age of coronavirus. Instead of wondering if the Germans have been too quick, it is worth wondering why governments elsewhere seemed to be so slow. Perhaps, instead of feeling the Germans have not waited enough, we should ask our politicians why we have to wait so long.

Laced into the endless, intractable debate over when, if and how soccer should return in places other than Germany is a deep-rooted, pernicious sort of a presumption, the kind that for some reason is allowed to build its nest in otherwise right-thinking minds. It is the idea that soccer fans are a danger to themselves and others.

The logic is this: Back in March, fans of Paris St.-Germain and Valencia gathered by the thousands outside their teams’ stadiums, where Champions League matches were being held behind closed doors. This was held up as proof that, whenever and wherever soccer is next played, it is all but certain that fans of some, or all, teams will inevitably do the same, putting their lives, the lives of their families, and society as a whole, at risk.

In England, at least, everyone from city mayors to police chiefs has promoted some version of this idea. They have not mentioned the rather salient fact that the world has changed markedly since the last time teams played; that whole countries have grown used to being in lockdown; that social distancing has, for most of us, seeped into second nature.

Mostly, though, they seem to have forgotten that soccer fans are, well, just people. A minority might believe the rules do not apply to them, of course, just as a small minority did not seem to realize that the parks were closed or the beaches shut or that they were not allowed to make armed visits to government buildings.

But the majority? The majority are like you. The majority, in fact, are you. And, as this excellent Twitter thread from my old boss — in a previous life — makes clear, that means we really need to ask just one question. Would you do it?

The thing that best sums up what made “Tiger King” such compelling viewing is this: It took until the end of the third episode before anyone so much as mentioned the (unproven) allegation that a lead character had fed her husband to a tiger. Not many shows have so much content, so many layers, that they can afford to bury a lead quite that explosive.

No wonder, then, that “Tiger King” proved a sensation. Netflix’s figures suggest that some 64 million households, so far, have watched Joe Exotic’s journey from large cat prison to human prison. No wonder it took over the zeitgeist. No wonder it was, for a while, the show that everyone seemed to be watching.

Except take a step back, and it wasn’t. Netflix has 182 million subscribers or so, which means two-thirds of its viewers are, as yet, blissfully unaware that it is apparently fine for entirely unqualified Americans to keep a bunch of tigers in the yard. There are, meanwhile, 16 countries in which there are more than a million Netflix subscribers. Their combined population is somewhere north of two billion.

The point is that we tend to overestimate the “global” in “global sensation.” When we say that the world is watching something or doing something or thinking something, we tend to mean our own, small worlds — the people we know, the people we talk to, the people like us.

Last week, Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary, suggested that the Premier League returning would “lift the spirits of the nation.” A few days later, a poll — carried out by YouGov — found that was only true of a fifth of the country: 19 percent of respondents said the return of soccer would boost their morale, while 73 percent said it would not.

This was taken, of course, as proof of the government’s hypocrisy, of its intention to use soccer to try to placate a country that is currently amassing the second-highest coronavirus death toll in the world. It added fuel to the fire of those who accuse soccer in general, and the Premier League in particular, of inflating its importance.

And yet, in a world in which many of us are used to being able to summon whatever entertainment we wish at the press of a button or the swipe of a screen, a world in which nothing is as universal as it seems, an era in which the monoculture is a distant memory, isn’t that figure remarkable?

It is, after all, not a fifth of a country saying it watches soccer, or a fifth of a country saying it quite likes soccer, but a fifth of a country saying soccer means so much that it might help people cope with one of the bleakest times in living memory. It’s the sort of reach that even “Tiger King” could not manage.

It isn’t proof of how little soccer matters. It is proof of the opposite.

A couple of late arrivals, this week, for book and film recommendations: David Simpson suggests “The Ball Is Round,” an “encyclopedic” work by David Goldblatt; and thanks to the estimable Candy Lee for pointing us toward “Those Glory Glory Days,” a 1983 film about four girls growing up as Tottenham fans.

And a question from Chris Ogden, in Hawaii: “American football coaches spend extraordinary amounts of time studying game film. To what extent is that a practice in top-tier global football, especially at the main European and South American clubs?”

It’s standard now, really, and it probably has been for at least two decades in England, and much farther back than that elsewhere (we are late developers). As a rough guide, I suspect most teams would watch five or more games of a forthcoming opponent, looking for everything from attacking patterns to specific moves on set pieces. Most clubs, in fact, have at least a couple of staff members employed just for that purpose.

Thanks for all the correspondence this week. If there’s anything urgent, I’m on Twitter. If it can wait, drop me a line at Set Piece Menu is here for those of you who have an hour that needs filling with people talking nonsense. And you can tell everyone you know about how nice it is to get an email every Friday here.

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