German Soccer Tries to Kick Off a Comeback for Pro Sports – The New York Times

German Soccer Tries to Kick Off a Comeback for Pro Sports – The New York Times

Dortmund waited out its quarantine at L’Arrivée Hotel and Spa, on the city’s southern edge. From the balconies of their rooms, the players overlooked the Niederhofer Holz, densely wooded with beech and oak. The hotel is a short drive from both Signal Iduna Park and the training facility. To Reyna, though, it felt like the wilderness. “Like we were way out in the woods somewhere,” he says.

For a full week, from Saturday to Saturday, the team remained at the hotel. There were no other guests and no visitors. Every morning, players and coaches took buses to training; afterward, they came back. Meals prepared by team cooks were served buffet-style in the empty restaurant, but players had to wait until the person in front of them was well down the line before proceeding. They sat at opposite ends of square tables and ate as quickly as possible. Then they went back to their rooms.

To further decrease the chances of infection, the rooms were all but left alone. Housekeeping service was limited to once during the week, while the team was holding a training session at the stadium on Wednesday. Even without pizza boxes or beer cans, some of the rooms started to take on the feel of a college dorm. When Akanji stuck his head into Reyna’s room that morning, he gasped. “You can tell you aren’t married,” he said.

For the first time in more than two months, players had something specific to train for. “You train hard, and as your reward, you get to go out and play these big games in front of a big crowd,” Hummels told me from the hotel. “That has been completely gone all these weeks.” A 31-year-old veteran of more than a decade in German soccer, Hummels said he never believed that games would be played before the summer. “But now we have a game ahead of us,” he said. “With a date and an opponent.” And it wasn’t just any game. Dortmund and Schalke are the two biggest clubs in the Ruhr Valley. Because they are so close to each other, games between them have the intensity of a Big 10 rivalry. In addition, Dortmund still had a chance to win the league. The team was four points behind the perennial champion, Bayern Munich, which has won each of the last seven seasons.

That gave the Bundesliga a marquee matchup on its first week back. To U.S. news outlets, the fact that Dortmund’s Reyna and Schalke’s Weston McKennie are Americans provided an additional hook. Henderson Hewes, a producer for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” contacted Dortmund and requested a video call with Reyna and highlights that could be used to promote the interview. On the day before the Dortmund-Schalke game, the show ran a short segment. The following morning, just before game time on the East Coast, another segment aired. “I think the interest for people here is seeing how what happens in Germany affects our leagues,” Hewes told me.

Under other circumstances, Hewes admitted, Dortmund-Schalke would have passed unnoticed. “If there were N.B.A. playoffs, the golf majors, the Kentucky Derby, we would never be doing this,” he said.

Some clubs had plans to try to mitigate the strangeness. Borussia Mönchengladbach solicited photos from its fans and used them to produce more than 12,000 cardboard cutouts that were propped up in the stands. Other clubs chose to pipe in crowd noises, cheers and whistles and even some of those singsong chants that are integral to the experience of watching a soccer game. Knowing that its fan groups were already criticizing the artificial nature of games played in vacant stadiums, Dortmund decided to present its games unadorned, in what Cramer calls the sport’s original form. The first games ever were played without spectators, he noted. “And if I play with my kids, even the neighbors aren’t interested to watch,” he told me a few days before the game. “So we just play for ourselves. The game is the focus.”

In the two weeks of full training after the lockdown ended, Reyna’s performance made a leap. “He’s comfortable, you can see it,” Hummels told me. “He’s on a different level now.” With Sancho still ailing, Favre put him in the lineup for what would be his first start. But during a warm-up drill, he stepped awkwardly reaching for a ball. His foot rolled over it, pulling something in his leg. “I felt it right away,” he says. In the training room, he decided that the risk of getting badly hurt wasn’t worth taking. What was important, he told me later, was that Favre had thought enough of him to put him in the lineup, even if he hadn’t been able to play.

After leaving the training room, Reyna showered. Then he watched on the sideline, wearing a mask. He could hear the sounds of the game, as though it was a closed scrimmage — every shout, every whistle. “It was strange,” he said. Like everyone else at the stadium that day, he would have the experience forever etched in his memory: a complicated mix of relief that the season had resumed, disappointment that he couldn’t play and excitement and unease about what the coming weeks might bring.

He came on as a substitute late in the next game, against VfL Wolfsburg the following Saturday, which Dortmund won, 2-0. He did the same in a 1-0 loss against Bayern Munich on the next Tuesday, the game that all but ended Dortmund’s hopes for a title. And after entering in the 80th minute of last Sunday’s game, a 6-1 rout at S.C. Paderborn 07, Reyna nearly scored his first Bundesliga goal on a hard shot from the right side that was deflected by the fingertips of the sprawling goalkeeper. In that game, too, Sancho scored three goals and, after the first one, removed his shirt to reveal a message in support of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of the police in Minneapolis had sparked widespread protests. The afternoon before, Schalke’s McKennie wore an armband that read “Justice for George.” The social activism had, at least temporarily, become the Bundesliga’s biggest news story and revealed how quickly playing games in a pandemic came to seem normal. “I think everybody feels safe,” he said.

As of this week, the Bundesliga has successfully concluded nearly half the games that remained on its schedule when it shut down in March. The idea of keeping athletes isolated from most everyone else so they can compete without fear of infection, which had been mocked by fans, journalists and a notable number of the athletes themselves during the shutdown, now appears to be accepted as a best practice. So are the empty stadiums, which have proven to be no impediment to exciting games played at the highest level. That has helped other leagues see the path to resuming their own schedules, Julien BriseBois, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, now believes. On May 23, the N.B.A. revealed plans to sequester its players in Orlando, Fla., and hold several weeks of playoffs starting in July, though some teams are said to be unsure about their participation. The N.H.L. is finalizing the same kind of tournament in two cities to be determined. English, Spanish and Italian soccer leagues all have announced return dates for the next three weeks.

In the meantime, with nothing else comparable to watch, TV audiences have repaid Bundesliga teams with a level of global attention that the league has not achieved despite years of trying. In America, the audience for Dortmund-Schalke on the Fox channel FS1 was 564 percent higher than the last Bundesliga game the cable channel showed before the shutdown, and nearly six times the league’s U.S. average. In Germany, the 37.7 market share for the time period easily eclipsed the Bundesliga’s previous record. Viewership figures aren’t yet available from all of the roughly 200 countries where it was broadcast, but Dortmund-Schalke is almost certain to end up as the most-watched German match ever.

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