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Germany’s Bundesliga soccer has a model for how sports can return amid coronavirus. The world is watching.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2 days ago Loveday Morris, Rick Noack
a large stadium: A general view during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Hertha BSC Berlin and 1. FC Union Berlin in Berlin on Friday. © Stuart Franklin/AP A general view during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Hertha BSC Berlin and 1. FC Union Berlin in Berlin on Friday.

BERLIN —When the Berlin soccer clubs Hertha and Union met on the pitch six months ago, sparks literally flew. The scrappy game was buoyed by a raucous, impassioned crowd that lit flares and shot fireworks onto the field. 

The scene was far different when the rival teams went head-to-head once more on Friday night, and the starting whistle echoed across Hertha Berlin’s empty 75,000 seat stadium.

“It’s awful, it’s just awful,” said Hertha fan Chris Chwalisz, 56, as he had a halftime cigarette and complained about the lack of atmosphere and lackluster first-half play.

Since it kicked off its first post-coronavirus match last week, Germany’s Bundesliga has been cheered by fans at home here and closely watched from abroad. It has offered sports-hungry spectators a chance to enjoy some professional competition while other leagues are still out of action, and it could become a model for how to resume sports around the world.

But soccer at its core remains a team sport in which close body contact is often unavoidable. There remain questions about whether the Bundesliga’s rules for testing, quarantines and limiting contact will be enough to ensure a full and fair rest of the season. And some of Germany’s most hardcore soccer fans say teams are putting financial interests ahead of what’s best for players, supporters and the game.

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German soccer officials have expressed confidence that their pandemic safety protocols will ensure the season can proceed.

“The whole world is watching Germany to see how we do it,” Bayern Munich director Hansi Flick said earlier this month. “It can set an example for all leagues.”

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In a 50-page strategy paper, the German soccer league (DFL) laid out the painstakingly detailed rules covering a wide range of situations, from TV production arrangements to team training to the personal hygiene of players. Under the new rules, competing teams have to arrive at different times at the stadiums. In changing rooms, face masks are mandatory. And on the pitch, team photos, handshakes or mascots are prohibited.

Before the resumption of the season, all teams were asked to spend one week in communal quarantine, and coronavirus tests are being conducted regularly. Although those precautions may minimize the risks, practices and matches still involve large groups of people coming into close contact.

After hugging and kissing between Hertha players celebrating goals last weekend, the Bundesliga had to remind teams about the rules restricting contact.

And as Hertha scored their first two goals within two minutes on Friday night, contact restrictions were far from everyone’s minds in Fränky bar in southern Berlin, decked out with Hertha scarves and memorabilia, where fans watching the match on four television screens erupted in cheers.

a group of people sitting at a table: Fränky sports bar owner Frank Sassoli wears a protective face mask while settling a bill with Hertha fans. © Sean Gallup/Getty Images Fränky sports bar owner Frank Sassoli wears a protective face mask while settling a bill with Hertha fans.

Owner Frank Sassoli, 62, had arranged tables the required 1.5 meters apart and occasionally urged patrons to follow mask rules, which require a face covering when walking through the bar, but not while seated.

While many bars in Berlin are still closed, nonsmoking establishments that serve food are allowed to open. Some of his older regulars had stayed away due to fears about the virus he said, but Sassoli said most were happy to have some semblance of normality back.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “The fans are excited, the fans are here.”

Before the onset of coronavirus, the Hertha-Union rivalry was already shaping up to be one of the Bundesliga’s most intense. Their November match was the first time in more than 40 years that the two top tier Berlin teams had played each other.

While Union comes from the former east, Hertha hails from what was the city’s west, adding an extra edge to the competition.

Robby Hunke, a sports commentator who has been among the few reporters allowed into the stadium, said logistics have been smooth so far.

“Everything was perfect, everything was clear, everything worked,” he said of the two matches last weekend. And while many have complained about the “ghost games” devoid of atmosphere, Hunke sees some positives.

“I’m a freak, I’m a sports reporter, and I think it’s cool to see these matches,” said the journalist, who has otherwise been commenting on the happenings on the street outside his window and the contents of his fridge. “It was pure football. Only football. Nothing more.”

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if other leagues “copy and paste” the German model.

a group of people standing in front of a store: Hertha fans watch their team play at Fränky sports bar on Friday. © Sean Gallup/Getty Images Hertha fans watch their team play at Fränky sports bar on Friday.

But not all have been so happy to see the Bundesliga return.

In a poll conducted by Infratest dimap for Germany’s public broadcaster ARD, 56 percent of respondents said the resumption of soccer matches was the wrong decision. Even respondents who were generally supportive of fewer coronavirus restrictions remained skeptical of the resumption of matches — 45 percent of respondents in that group opposed the competitions.

Perhaps surprisingly, both Hertha and Union’s most hardcore fans, known as “ultras,” have kicked back strongly against games resuming without fans.

“We see football as a social meeting place and the clubs as a democratic framework for participation and commitment,” Hertha’s Harlekins said in a statement. “We cannot and do not want to be in the same boat with those who only see a business and product in football and are keen to maximize their profits.”

The Hammer Hearts, a Union fan club, took a similar stance: “It is out of the question for the Bundesliga to play,” it wrote.

Several Bundesliga clubs had warned that they would go bankrupt if the season did not begin again.

“It’s all about TV money,” said Arne Richter, who covers soccer for German news agency DPA. “That’s the only reason they are playing now. It’s not for any romantic idea of sport or football. They need money from the TV stations.”

But still, he said he finds the resistance from fans hard to understand. “What’s the sense of being in the Hertha ultras if there’s no Hertha anymore?” he said.

In a country where public gatherings are still limited to no more than two households, the exceptions granted to the country’s top soccer league have raised some eyebrows.

“It’s perverse,” German Javelin throwing world champion Johannes Vetter told German media. “Everyone is suffering through the same. To me, special favors are out of question.”

And doubts of the fairness of the system have mounted.

One entire soccer club in the second league, Dynamo Dresden, was forced into two weeks of quarantine on May 9, after three players tested positive for the coronavirus. Another Dresden player and a coach were confirmed to have the virus this past week. Training was still set to resume this weekend. But two weeks of quarantine, the club’s supporters argue, have put its players at a disadvantage that will be hard to overcome.

Hunke, the commentator, said he thinks there could be future complications, as clubs appeal being forced to stay on the sidelines. But he said the league should go on.

At the end of the night Friday in Fränky bar, there was little disagreement among fans. Hertha finished the match 4-0, the team’s second win since the season resumed with the new restrictions.

Chwalisz, who attended his first match at Hertha’s home ground at age 7, said he no longer felt so down on the ghost matches. He said he’d be content for all games to go ahead without spectators if it meant his team continued to play so well.

“Does it matter when the results are like this?” he said. “I’m just happy.”

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