Bundesliga return from coronavirus gives hope to world's top leagues

Bayern Munich's French defender Benjamin Pavard (L) celebrates scoring their second goal with Bayern Munich's Polish forward Robert Lewandowski during the German first division Bundesliga football match FC Union Berlin v FC Bayern Munich on May 17, 2020 in Berlin. (AFP)
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Updated 18 May 2020

Bundesliga return from coronavirus gives hope to world's top leagues

  • The first round of the Bundesliga was played behind closed doors

DUBAI: Arsene Wenger, as ever, summed it up perfectly.

“This is a short term solution, not long term. But it’s still the best way to finish the season.”

Halfway through the first weekend of Bundesliga football, or any top European football in over two months, the former Arsenal manager was enjoying the return of football.

He was not alone. Football fans around the globe, starved of action since almost all major leagues were halted due to the coronavirus crisis, were tuned in as well. Everyone it seemed, even those who don’t usually watch German football, were looking for pointers going forward. And the general consensus among fans has been one of cautious, but obvious, relief. It’s good to have football back.

The first round of the Bundesliga was played behind closed doors and had, before kick-off, split most supporters between those who believed this was a karaoke version of the game and barely justified being played, and those who, like Wenger, believe any football is better than none.

Chris McHardy, Head of Sport, Dubai Eye 103.8 radio, is a long-time follower of German football and, though initially conflicted at the return of Bundesliga action, admitted it has been welcome sight.

“Whilst I can understand those who say 'football isn't important right now', from a selfish point of view, the return couldn't have come soon enough,” he said. “Yes, it was odd without fans but I'll take a diluted affair rather than nothing at all, so long as the authorities can ensure the players’ ongoing safety. Roll on next weekend.”

In the eight completed matches played on Saturday and Sunday, there were 18 goals scored, with Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 thrashing of rivals Schalke in the Revierderby catching the eye. 

“To say some of the defending was 'schoolboy' would be doing a great disservice to the schoolboys across the land. I'm looking at Schalke's entire backline and Frankfurt's Almamy Toure in particular,” McHardy said. “Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the standard. Erling Holland's sumptuous finish in Dortmund's rout of Schalke was my own highlight of the weekend, after his 11 word post-match interview of course.”

McHardy believes that any success in Germany will encourage the return of football across the globe, even if it’s just to complete the interrupted seasons.

“The key takeaway is that it can be done,” he added. “Yes, it's not ideal, and the game is a poorer one without fans, but unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Credit must go to the Bundesliga and its clubs for setting aside individual interests for the good of the collection. There's one league that ought to be taking notes.”

English Premier league, it’s your move.

Faris Abdulrazzaq, a Liverpool fan but also an avid watcher of the Bundesliga and other European leagues as well, said it was joy to watch football again.

“After almost a two-month absence, which is longer than the usual summer break in football, this has been the longest spell without the beautiful game,” he said. “And while the return has been for only one of Europe’s top five leagues, it’s really less about the quantity and more about what it represents. In broader terms, it’s a clear signal to the world that life must go on. More specifically, for football fanatics, it’s  a step in the right direction to get the whole game back into full swing.”

Crucially, it was evident that the players themselves, after rumors of concerns about health and safety, were enjoying themselves too.

"I must admit it at first it was heartbreaking to watch this week's round of the Bundesliga with empty stadiums and a strange echo coming out of the TV,” he added. “But what impressed me most was the effort those players have put into the the matches I watched so far. A clear indication that everyone is giving it their all despite the lack of atmosphere.”

Like McHardy and many others, Abdulrazzaq is keen to see how the successful restart in Germany, so far at least, will translate to resumption of football elsewhere. Especially the English Premier League.

“As the German teams and the rest of us are fully aware, this restart will not only give hope and joy, but will also provide a blueprint for other leagues still aspiring to resume the action,” Abdulrazzaq added. “A successful experiment here, means more to all of us, as it would clearly help push the go button for the Premier League and eventually the Champions League to return to action.”

With most fans keeping an eye on developments in Europe, other leagues around the world have been setting up their own plans for return of football. 

In the Middle East, that could well likely not be before September or October, when weather conditions will allow for outdoor activities. The Bundesliga, despite the media attention over the last few days, was not the first major league to return to action. In South Korea, a country that has dealt with the spread of Covid-19 more competently than most European nations, football had already resumed.

But for the time being, its the return of the Bundesliga, and potentially imminent Premier League, La Liga and Serie A returns that are grabbing the headlines.

Omar Al-Duri, a FIFA-certified football coach, sports analyst and radio presenter based in Dubai, says he did not realise just how much he had missed the weekly routine of watching football. All the time however, the issue of safety was at the back of his mind. Thankfully, there has been no health cares too speak of so far.

“I was delighted football was back, and there was a real sense of relief when Dortmund kicked off against Schalke on Saturday,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it until i saw it. But it meant more to get through the 90 minutes with no issues, to set the blueprint for the world of football.”

Despite the excitement, Al-Duri believes the coming days will go a long way to determining how quickly, and regularly football will return. Even one positive case of coronavirus could throw all the plans into chaos again.

But for now, the outlook looks good.

“I came into the game with a clear mind and an understanding that it would take minutes to get back to match sharpness, recover from games and respect the new rules to keep football on the map,” he said. “As long as nothing is reported Germany are one up. The ultimate goal, for me and many others, is to watch the Premier League. Even from home it would help with mental health, have something to banter about and celebrate the sport we love.”

Football may have cautiously returned at the weekend, but it seems that fans, in lockdown at home, are quickly readjusting to the new normal. Already thoughts are turning to the big prizes.

“Many people will tell you football is nothing without fans, that something seems off, that it feels weird now,” Abdulrazzaq concluded. “But honestly I am too excited to be bothered as I can’t wait for Liverpool to be crowned deserving champions of England.”

Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

Updated 03 August 2020

Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

  • Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining
  • There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play

DUBAI: There may have been no football in Saudi Arabia for five months but the mind games are in full flow as ahead of the crucial top of the table clash in the Saudi Pro League on Wednesday, Al Hilal boss Razvan Lucescu has told Al Nassr coach Rui Vitoria that the pressure is all on him.

In the first game since March when the season was suspended due to coronavirus, Al Nassr in second, six points behind the leaders with eight games to play, can’t afford any slip-ups in the Riyadh Derby if they are to successfully defend the title they won last season.

“We are six points ahead and the opponent is under more pressure as they know they have to reduce the difference,” Lucescu told reporters at the pre-match press conference to the eagerly-awaited Riyadh Derby that will take place with no fans in the King Fahd International Stadium.

That points gap means that the smart money is still on Al Hilal to take league title number 16. Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining.

Not only that but Al Hilal have looked to be in better shape than their challengers in recent warm-up games with a 2-2 draw with second tier side Al-Shoalah following a 4-0 win over Al Riyadh.

“We have been looking forward to this game for a long time,”  Lucescu, who took Al Hilal to the AFC Champions League title in 2019, added. “The league suspension has been long and it has not been easy but we have focused on the mental side of things and aim to return strongly.”

The Romanian has been boosted by the return to fitness of Brazilian star Carlos Eduardo who has recovered from last week’s knock. With the league’s leading goalscorer Bafetimbi Gomis signing a contract extension in July, Lucescu is in a positive frame of mind.

“We know the way they play and we know that it will be a tough game …but everyone is affected by the long pause and we all start at the same level. We are just going to take it step by step and stay focused.”

There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play. The former Porto star will be needed as fellow defenders Omar Hawsawi and Abdullah Madu could miss out through injury.

While Hilal may have the points gap, in terms of the personal battles between the two coaches, Vitoria has the upper hand. The Portuguese boss has yet to lose in three meetings with his Romanian rival in big games in Europe as well as Saudi Arabia.

In a final play-off to reach the group stage of the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League, Vitoria led Benfica to a 5-2 aggregate victory over PAOK, coached by Lucescu. After a 1-1 draw in Lisbon, the Portuguese powerhouse won 4-1 in Greece.

Earlier this season, Al Nassr inflicted Al Hilal’s only loss in the league this season so far with a 2-1 win at Hilal’s King Saud International Stadium in October with Moroccan forward Abderrazak Hamdallah getting both goals.

A similar result at Al Nassr’s home on Wednesday would breathe new life into the title race. Vitoria has stressed that recent friendly games were a chance to try out tactics and give players a run-out. Losses against Al Raed and Al Fateh however have given the Portuguese boss much to think about.

At the other end of the table.  Al Ittihad are just three places of the bottom of this 16-team league and in danger of the drop. The two-time AFC Champions League winners face a game on Tuesday at mid-table Abha where victory would provide the Jeddah giants with some much-needed breathing space.

The race for third and a place in the 2021 AFC Champions League is also a fierce one. Al Wehda are currently in the driving seat and host Al Shabab while Al Ahli in fourth and just two points behind host the struggling Al Hazem. Al Faisaly, Al-Taawon and Al Raed also have an outside chance of booking a place in next year’s continental competition.

All eyes will, however, be on the top of the table clash as Hilal can take a huge step towards the title. “I am happy with how the players have returned from the suspension and I am confident in  their abilities,”said Lucescu. “All we care about is winning the next match and that will help us win the league.”