Bundesliga's return is exciting, but it also stands upon the edge of a knife

The German Bundesliga is returning next weekend, the first major soccer league to resume in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. After a flurry of leagues canceled the remainders of their season, there is heightened relief and anticipation for any soccer to be played before the next seasons are scheduled to start in the fall.

This glimmer of normalcy has, of course, set off a rush to do normal things. Like assess the matchups, with May 16’s Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 being a highlight even in normal times. Or consider the impact on all the U.S. national teamers who play in Germany. Or break down where we left off in the world’s new favorite sports league, alongside the Korean Baseball Organization.

Because these are the things we would regularly do. And we have so longed for this little slice of normal in sports that nothing will stop us from luxuriating in it.

There’s still no telling, however, if this is the right call. Or how this will turn out.

The lengths that the Bundesliga has gone to just to reopen are staggering. There will be no fans, of course – they will be replaced by cardboard cutouts of fans to make the empty stadiums feel less cavernous. Some 20,000 tests will have to be conducted between now and the end of the season, which will chug along with two games per week to finish up the last nine matches of the season. Players will be tested twice a week the rest of the way.

Several weeks after they resumed practicing while socially distanced, each team will be quarantined in a hotel together before the first round of games kicks off. That measure was the outcome of a tussle between Germany’s federal government and the states over the length of that quarantine; the states seem to have won and gotten their eight days, rather than the 14 the federal government originally advocated for, per The Athletic.

Salomon Kalou's high-profile misstep in skirting COVID-19 protocols is another reminder of how precarious the Bundesliga's resumption is. (Photo by City-Press via Getty Images)

Only 300 people will be allowed into the stadiums, the bare minimum to hold and broadcast a match, according to the New York Times. Opposing teams will travel in small groups in special vehicles that will be disinfected after every trip. Players on both teams will dress in multiple locker rooms and shower separately.

And Germany had to proceed in the face of significant political pressure from France, where the Ligue 1 season has already been canceled. French president Emmanuel Macron has reportedly tried to stop other leagues from resuming, preaching solidarity. He lobbied German Chancellor Angela Merkel very hard not to start up play again. 

Sure enough, there’s plenty of cause for concern. The first round of COVID-19 tests among the 36 clubs in Germany’s two professional tiers turned up 10 positive cases. Three of them were on FC Köln, a physiotherapist and two players, while a third player was identified to be on the 2. Bundesliga side Dynamo Dresden. A second round of tests found two more positive cases.

All the while, veteran Hertha Berlin forward Salomon Kalou was suspended by his club after live-streaming his return to the locker room on social media, showing himself blithely shaking hands with teammates and making fun of a teammate getting a test. Kalou has since apologized and is considered a model professional, but his ignorance or indifference highlight how precarious the entire thing is.

German soccer’s governing body, the DFB, concedes that discipline is paramount. Reopening only to shut down again would be catastrophic, both in terms of optics and business. The margin between pulling off professional soccer in the midst of a global pandemic or making it worse and longer is wafer thin. The upside is boosting morale by bringing back a beloved pastime and likely saving it from considerable financial peril. The downside is unimaginably grim.

There’s just so much that can go wrong. Some of it is beyond the league’s control. If the pandemic flares up again in Germany, where it has been fairly well repressed, the Bundesliga and its second tier have said they would relinquish their own tests for the public good to avoid a shortage, likely ending play again. A single player testing positive could spell the end of play as well.

It may be a grand experiment, or a foolhardy one.

In the coming weeks, the Bundesliga will either show the entertainment industry the path back to normalcy, or it will stand as a cautionary tale. There is no middle ground. 

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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