Robin Himmelmann of St. Pauli (L) speaks with Kevin Mueller of 1.FC Heidenheim after the Second Bundesliga match, Hamburg, Germany, May 27, 2020 (Stuart Franklin/Getty)

Football is back — sort of. But is it football?

Players returned to the pitch in Germany’s Bundesliga on May 16, and they are scheduled to resume in England’s Premier League on June 17. But stadiums are empty, as are the viewing areas in pubs and restaurants.

And the uncertainty is not just over the lack of fans, at least in large groups. Even if Coronavirus has been vanquished, the way we watch and enjoy sport may have been changed for many seasons.

A German Role Model?

The Bundesliga was suspended on March 13, two days after the final match of the weekend was completed in an empty Borussia Park, the home of Borussia Mönchengladbach. Strict restrictions became an official lockdown nine days later, with Chancellor Angela Merkel introducing curfew and measures to keep people homebound.

Germany’s proactive measures allowed the nation to deal with Coronavirus strategically and methodically. By April 4, more than 1,300,000 tests had been carried out in the two weeks since lockdown. In comparison, there were only 364,000 tests in the UK. More than 8,600 Germans have perished, but the mortality rate has been lower than in the hardest-hit European countries: the UK (38,489 official deaths), Italy (33,415), France (28,802), and Spain (27,127).

Negotiations in Berlin in late April arranged training in small groups, frequent testing, and finally the conduct of matches. Merkel and the German Football Association reached an agreement on May 6, with much praise was to Germans for adhering to the lockdown measures. The “R” rate of transmission was between 0.7-0.8 — below the critical measure of 1.0 beyond which the virus rapidly spreads.

Or a Recipe for Disaster?

But as clubs prepared for the resumption of the season, the easing of lockdown measures led to an increase in the R rate to 1.13 over the weekend of May 10. Suddenly, the German example was raising concerns rather than optimism.

The UK, with the highest death toll in Europe and the 2nd-highest in the world, has already lagged far behind Germany in containment of Coronavirus. Testing is still not established on a comprehensive basis, and it remains to be seen if a “trace and track” system, belatedly but hastily introduced on May 28, is effective.

Meanwhile, four more Premier League players and staff tested positive last week, raising the total to 12 among almost 4,000 tests. With his goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale confirmed positive, manager Eddie Howe said, “Suddenly everyone feels vulnerable, everyone is alerted to the fact that this is serious and real.”

The Premier League, suspended since March 9, has taken a chance that others disdained. France’s Ligue 1 and The Netherlands’ Eredivisie have ended their seasons. And English football resumes with a black mark: Liverpool’s home Champions League match with Atletico Madrid on March 11 has been blamed for a deadly spread of Covid-19, because of the packed Anfield stadium.

Bittersweet Return

The Premier League will recommence in two weeKS, but without fans in stadiums, pubs, and restaurants, football culture may be on hold.

It is hard to see fans returning “any time soon”, says FA Chairman Greg Clarke. Jordan Henderson, captain of presumptive League winner Liverpool summarizes, “To win a trophy and receive it without any fans there — that would be pretty strange.”

Goals will be greeted with silence across the UK’s stadiums. With the country slowly and uncertainly coming out of stay-at-home measures, any atmosphere will be among a few family members gathered around the television. The buzz and excitement of match days may not be resurrected until next season.

Germany again offers the sight of what is to come. After his Borussia Dortmund thrashed Schalke 4-0 in the highly-anticipated Revierderby, chief executive Hans Joachim Watzke said:

I’ve received messages from all over the world in the last couple of hours that everybody is watching. Then you go through the city and there’s nothing going on.