There’s No Safe Way to Play Soccer Right Now

Germany’s social distancing rules for the Bundesliga are a charade.

Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich is challenged by Jadon Sancho and Manuel Akanji of Borussia Dortmund
Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich is challenged by Jadon Sancho and Manuel Akanji of Borussia Dortmund during the Bundesliga match between them at Signal Iduna Park on Tuesday, in Dortmund, Germany. Federico Gambarini/Pool/Getty Images

I watch soccer for two main reasons: to procrastinate and to scare my wife when I suddenly shout “goooooooal!” and take a lap around the house. I should be thrilled to have my favorite sport back from the dead. But so far, its return is only the latest reminder that it’ll be a very long time before life returns to normal.

Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga, is on again. Two teams, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, are within reach of winning the league title. Before it kicked off, I couldn’t have been more excited to have soccer back in my life. But there’s so much that’s changed.

The essentials are still there. There’s the drama of referees missing obvious hand-balls, extremely technical finishes, and very tough tackles. But an inescapable question looms over the whole thing: Is there really any safe way to play soccer during a pandemic?

The most obvious difference is the empty stands. Especially for soccer, it’s weird. Supporters are often referred to as the game’s 12th man, and without them, watching these contests feels a lot more like watching a recreational league. The players on the pitch and on the bench are shouting louder than the color analysts. The thuds from the ball getting kicked rattle my headphones. Some broadcasts are trying out synthetic crowd noises, but that’s even more annoying. There’s no tricking audiences into thinking there are live fans. At best, the silence is simply going to take some getting used to. Some fans may think the absent crowd leaves room to appreciate a purer version of soccer, but to me, it feels incomplete.

It isn’t just the lack of fans that’s bothering me. The players on the sidelines are all wearing branded masks and are seated far away from each other. I can’t figure out why. If they get called up by the manager, they take off their masks and get in the game. And despite stereotypes still held by many Americans reared on the NFL, soccer is a very aggressive contact sport, and players jostle hard for each ball. So every substitution erases whatever precautions are being taken on the sidelines.

There are some new rules, too. Squad managers are typically limited to three player substitutions per match. But with concern over overall player fitness—since players had much less time than normal to train before the league was restarted—each team is now allowed five substitutions. Schalke coach David Wagner was the first to use the new rule to his advantage against Dortmund. They had conceded four goals before they used those subs, so it didn’t help much, even if the extra players he took out got to rest more.

Maybe the most devastating change has ruined the game’s best part: the goals. Despite knocking each other around on the pitch at all other parts of the game, some players are choosing not to celebrate together, dancing at a distance, elbow bumping, or just nodding after netting one. The goal that put Dortmund ahead of Schalke in that match was a slick one. Dortmund midfielder Thorgan Hazard crossed the ball perfectly into the box, giving an easy chance to the team’s young star Erling Haaland. This is usually the part I live for. It’s when the audience goes wild, and the teams rush to the goal scorer to pile on and celebrate. But this was just bizarre. Haaland trotted to a corner, and all of his teammates kept a safe distance as he sort of shimmied in place. I was … very underwhelmed.

For every change that makes sense, like separating journalists from players with a big sheet of plastic, there are strange and seemingly purposeless measures like incessantly disinfecting the game balls—despite players’ own frequent, necessary proximity and contact with one another. It’s impossible not to wonder how much of these changes are for show, and how many will actually prevent the spread of the disease.

Other soccer leagues have announced that they would resume matches soon, but multiple players in the English Premier League have protested against the decision. Chelsea star N’Golo Kante hasn’t been showing up to practice, citing safety concerns. Watford’s Troy Deeney has also refused to train, telling reporters he refused to put his family in harm’s way. Many of his teammates who have shown up to practice have since been exposed to the virus. The Spanish league, La Liga Santander, announced it too will resume in June, and the Italian league, Serie A, will be announcing its decision soon.

I personally don’t think there is a safe way to play soccer in the middle of a pandemic. Watching famous soccer players compete in online video game tournaments isn’t nearly as exciting, but it makes much more sense to keep holding out for a more controllable situation. The Bundesliga says it will be testing players regularly, and has emphasized that its focus will be on limiting the spread of the disease as best as it can. But as long as players are interacting with other players on the pitch, an outbreak seems inevitable. With so much still being discovered with how COVID-19 is transmitted, not even medical professionals can say for certain that players have zero chance of catching it. Without any guarantee, the best that players and staff can do is assume the risk.

Other industries have come up with creative ways to resume. Some in the film industry have continued to work by relying on a quarantine bubble plan that keeps everyone involved together and isolated for the entire duration of a production. Entire teams and staff were put under mandatory isolation in order to compete in the Bundesliga. Other leagues will likely follow suit, but it may be impossible to enforce. Some Bundesliga coaches and players still broke the rules. English Premier League team Manchester City says it will be finding a way to discipline Kyle Walker after he was caught breaking quarantine rules and hosting a sex party. Unless a viable preventative plan comes to professional soccer—or if players and staff understand and consciously volunteer to risk exposing themselves to the real continued danger of infection—we shouldn’t bother with the unnecessary charade of celebrating goals six feet apart.

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