All eyes on Bundesliga as it leads way for pro sports in return to play

Bundesliga

Substitute player of Bayern Munich are seen during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Union Berlin and Bayern Munich in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, May 17, 2020. (Hannibal Hanschke pool via AP)

And so now we await how many positive tests get posted by Bundesliga teams this week and whether anybody keels over. The game ain’t over any more until the fat lady tests. The first significant team sports competition of the pandemic opened to empty stadiums across Germany this weekend with fewer dives, fewer hugs, fewer handshakes — a 50ish-page medical protocol in place — and a lot of eyes on how it sounded, looked and felt.

I rather enjoyed watching soccer without crowd noise — or, at least, I was more comfortable with it than I imagined I’d be. Certainly, I prefer it to the idea of piped-in crowd noise (remember when we used to accuse the Toronto Maple Leafs of foisting that fakery on fans at the Air Canada Centre?) which is something that appears to be on the horizon when North American sports return. I mean, I guess I get it when it comes to indoor sports. Anybody who has covered a world junior tournament game between any team other than the hosts or Canada and the U.S. understands how dire and dreary that can be. So, I’m prepared for CGI fans and a soundtrack of carefully and lovingly curated randomness. But for outdoor sports? I’m OK with the shouts, grunts and sounds of stuff making contact with other stuff. I’m hoping baseball follows course at least initially when it gets over itself and comes to an agreement to resume play.

I like to think that the smart fan watches this sport of choice to see the talent on display and enjoy the complexities and nuances of the game without EDM. But … yeah, I’m old.

Professional sports are like any other industry these days, balancing financial realities with the health and safety of their workers, except it is subject to more scrutiny than any of them because … well, there’s nothing else for sports reporters and commentators to write about. I mean, we’re down to the stems and seeds in terms of replacements. Is that H-O-R-S-E competition still going on? Or was it bounced aside by cornhole? Watching people play video games has shockingly run its course. That hagiography on Michael Jordan is about done, without changing any minds about whether he was or was not the greatest, and Memory Lane is turning into a bicycle and pedestrian thruway, accessible only from 2-5 p.m. on weekends. Soon the tall foreheads of the news pages and shows will weigh in, because there’s nothing more in their cupboard and everybody in sports is a millionaire or a millionaire in training. People will continue to die from the coronavirus, testing stinks, numbers will go down today, then up tomorrow and (INSERT POLITICIAN’S NAME HERE) has been exposed as a charlatan/inspiration. Tough to hammer on businesses that sell widgets getting up and running again, because those are real people with real jobs and real stockholders, and we need widgets to make the wheels go around. Sports? Pffft. Puffery. Nobody cares whether the workers at Universal Widgets get to blow their nose when they’re on the assembly line, but “Oh my god they might not let baseball players spit anymore!” Just think how many BREAKING NEWS segments Wolf Blitzer can get out of that!

And so while the NHL has taken quiet steps toward a resumption of the regular season, the NBA slow-plays its return because a growing number of stakeholders want the next regular season to start on Christmas Day and Major League Baseball continues to trip over itself, it was left to Soccer Made in Germany to be the first into the deep end. With domestic leagues in Italy and Spain in various stages of return and the Premier League facing a do-or-die week of navel-gazing, attention has now started to splinter or at least shift slightly away from whether sports should just get the hell out of the way to how it will happen. I’m not going to go over the list of dos and don’ts that were part of that 50-page Bundesliga medical protocol that, conceptually at least, seems to be providing the template for other leagues, what with all the talk of “zones” and granular stuff about showering and transportation.

What was clear from this weekend? That it’s possible to convince players that if it’s done properly the field of play can in fact be, maybe, the safest place to be. I mean, there are 22 soccer players on a field at any one time and, well, find me another place in society where you can be guaranteed that the 21 people around you have all been tested as often as you have, and as recently as you have been tested. It sure ain’t the grocery store. Once the Bundesliga matches started, there was the usual jersey pulling, tackling and elbows to the face on set pieces. What reticence existed seemed to be born of a lack of match fitness — understandable. There was spitting, despite rules against it, albeit done so with recognition on the part of the player that transgression had occurred. Managers decided not to wear masks once the match started. They were given the option, but many believed they would be worn unless communication was necessary.

“The Bundesliga, even for our guys, is the real test,” Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney said Friday.

What was missing other than the crowd? Nobody squared up to an opponent after a 50/50 challenge. There was precious little in-the-face whinging to the referee … and other than Hertha Berlin’s kissing and hugging and head and rump patting on their three goals against Hoffenheim, celebrations were muted. Hertha’s players were not disciplined, although on German news channels Sunday morning Bavaria’s minister/president Markus Soder called out the team. “I did not like that. They should at least be more careful in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Truth is, the days leading up to the Bundesliga matches were more eventful. Borussia Dortmund had to sit two key players — Emre Can and Axel Witsel — because they were forced to leave the training/quarantine bubble for more extensive testing on injuries; Werder Bremen had to start training a week later because regional health authorities noted a localized spike in COVID-19 cases; and Augsburg head coach Heiko Herrlich agreed to sit out his team’s first match because it was discovered he’d broken quarantine to purchase toothpaste and hand cream. Hey, who among us hasn’t forgotten the toiletries? The acid test will, of course, happen when multiple players test positive. It’s nice now to say (as the Bundesliga has done) that the games will go on even if a player tests positive, but given the concerns about long-term damage to the lungs … just wait until some guy who is 23 with a decade of multi-million dollar paydays ahead of him discovers he can’t breathe. That’s when the equation changes for players, without whom none of this works.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• Bayern Munich’s 19-year-old Canadian left back Alphonso Davies had a strong game in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Union Berlin, his threatening pace allowing him to get by his marker three times in the first half alone. Of greater interest? He played the full 90 minutes despite a return to health of Lucas Hernandez, a player who cost Bayern $80 million in the transfer market. The fixtures are going to pile up as the Bundesliga tries to squeeze in its remaining matches and with German national team member Niklas Sule also close to fitness, it will be fascinating to see how Davies keeps his playing time on a loaded Bayern squad.

• It’s pretty apparent that the odds are long that Toronto’s teams play home games any time before September, at least according to what mayor John Tory told us on Writers Bloc. The Blue Jays would seem to be the team most affected and I’m with colleague Shi Davidi on this: rather than play games at their minor-league complex in Dunedin, wouldn’t the Jays be better off working out an arrangement with the Tampa Bay Rays to play at Tropicana Field.

• Friend Ren Lavoie of TVA Sports had an interesting comment on Friday about why the NHL needs to stage at least some games in a Canadian hub city: the cheapness of the Canadian dollar relative to its U.S. counterpart would help mitigate at least a bit of the cost of staging the event, in terms of hotels, food, etc. Remember: NHL players don’t get paid their salaries during the playoffs.

• Best bit of inside info dispensed on Bundesliga telecasts this weekend? Not only was FC Koln’s goat mascot Hennes not allowed in-stadium, he also recently become a new father for the first time.

THE ENDGAME

Holy hell, it’s a good thing Twitter didn’t exist in 1995, or Major League Baseball would still be on strike. I still think the two sides will get this done, but at this point, I’m wondering whether the public back and forth on social media alone isn’t doing long-term damage at a time when so many people are facing some very basic concerns. This isn’t the same economy and society we’ve seen in previous labour dispute — yes, that’s what I’m calling this, which in and of itself is embarrassing – and it’s compounded by the fact that there’s nothing else to distract from it, at least not in the sports world. One of the keys to the recent period of labour peace has been the fact that much of the work done in collective bargaining has been done quietly. I mean, I can remember having a news release land on my lap during Game 6 of the 2006 World Series telling me an agreement in principle had been reached. Nobody expected it. There have been other contentious moments, but once it was discovered there was no serious discussion of a salary cap, everybody in the industry just shrugged and said: “they’ll get it done.” Now, that word has arisen again as the Major League Baseball Players Association suggests any revenue-sharing plan is just a salary cap in disguise. The assumption on the part of the MLBPA seems to be that even though the current CBA runs for another season, ownership has chosen the time-honored business notion that any crisis is actually an opportunity too good to let pass. And I can see why it feels that way: MLB has turned into a leaky boat. My only hope is that the economic drips and drabs that have come out from ownership represent an extreme starting point, which will allow the owners to present a more acceptable proposal and then feign surprise that the other stuff was out there. I can hear it now: “It didn’t come from us! No idea where that started!” So far, ownership has won the day: putting out health protocols that include testing for front-line and hospital workers in all 30 markets, holding back on the economic nuts and bolts. Address the logistics and optics of testing and put the players in a position where they either sign off on testing or turn it down and then attempt to explain that to the people who as a result won’t be tested. Good luck with that, fellas. And if the players do accept the health protocols and kill the games return over finances? Well, tough to spin that at a time of almost 25 per cent unemployment Either way, as long as we’re getting daily diatribes, this deal won’t get done. Baseball won’t have a chance of getting back until all is quiet on the Twitter front. In the meantime, am I the only one wondering how the hell baseball can promise testing to front-line folks when government can’t? Can I yell at someone about this, please?

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. You can also hear us live on the @Sportsnet app at Sprtsnt.ca/590listen or tell Google or Alexa to “play Sportsnet 590.” Rate, review and subscribe to our podcast here. He and Dan Riccio also co-host “A Kick In The Grass” a national soccer radio show on the Sportsnet Radio Network

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