Soccer is coming back to Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that the country's top two divisions can resume play this month under strict conditions, including empty stadiums and twice-a-week testing of players. League officials are expected to announce a start date Thursday after a call with teams, with the weekend of May 16-17 the earliest games would be played.
German soccer would be the first of the major European sports to return after sports across the continent shut down in mid-March because of COVID-19. Officials in England, Spain and Italy, as well as the United States, are watching closely in hopes it provides a road map for how other leagues and sports can return.
In the meantime, here is what you should know about the situation:
Additional details, including where games will be played, still need to be worked out. One thing already decided is that games will be played without fans, a precautionary measure that could continue through the end of the year. There will be about 300 people, maximum, at the stadium on game days, including the team and its support staff, media and security.
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German players have been training for several weeks, but it’s been in small groups and while observing social distancing. League officials said last month that full-scale training camps would be conducted under “quarantine conditions” and teams would be tested twice a week and there will be voluntary testing of their families.
Players also will participate in “comprehensive antibody testing” as part of a clinical study.
Germany has a robust testing program, and league officials have insisted the frequent tests of first- and second-division teams will have no impact on the general public. In fact, league officials said last month that the tests would account for just 0.4 percent of Germany’s capacity.
If someone tests positive, it will be up to local health officials to decide what to do.
All 36 teams in Germany’s top two divisions were tested last week in anticipation of Wednesday’s decision. Out of more than 1,700 tests, there were 10 positives, though that included two players at Cologne. Another round of testing is being done this week, and second-division Erzgebirge Aue has already said a staffer has tested positive.
Cologne isolated the players who tested positive while Erzgebirge Aue quarantined its entire team.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Most teams had nine games left when the season was halted in mid-March. Two teams, Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen, have 10 games to play.
The title is still very much up for grabs, with eight points separating the top five teams. Bayern Munich (55 points) is four points ahead of Borussia Dortmund, with RB Leipzig another point back. Borussia Moenchengladbach has 49 points and Bayer Leverkusen has 48.
Schalke, in sixth place, is a point ahead of Wolfsburg for the second Europa League spot.
Fortuna Dusseldorf, Werder Bremen and SC Paderborn 07 are facing relegation.
There are more than 30 Americans playing in Germany, including rising star Gio Reyna, who is at Dortmund. The teenager has played in 11 games since being promoted from the U-19 squad at the winter break, scoring once and getting the assist on the game-winner in a Feb. 18 Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain.
Tyler Adams is at Leipzig, while Josh Sargent has played in every league game since Jan. 1 for Werder Bremen.
Zack Steffen, the U.S. men’s goalkeeper, injured his knee during training last week at Fortuna Dusseldorf. He’s expected to miss at least a month, which is bad news for a team in danger of relegation.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Germany’s efforts to resume the soccer season are being closely watched across Europe and in the United States. Shutting down professional sports has been costly, potentially even catastrophic, and league officials are eager to find a way to return to business as usual. Or as close to it as they can get.
If Germany can make this work, expect England’s Premier League to push forward with its plans to try and resume its season later this month or in early June. Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga are hoping to resume training early this month.
It also will give hope to the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, though the United States doesn’t have anywhere near the testing capability that Germany does.