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.”


How postponing Asia World Cup qualifiers affects Saudi Arabia’s plans

Updated 57 min 37 sec ago

How postponing Asia World Cup qualifiers affects Saudi Arabia’s plans

  • With the coronavirus pandemic still active around the world, Saudi Arabia’s games with Yemen, Singapore, Palestine and Uzbekistan will be held some time next year.

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s qualification plans for the 2022 World Cup were hit again on Wednesday as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) postponed qualifiers that were scheduled in October and November to 2021.

However, the decision could boost the Champions League hopes of the country’s clubs.

With the coronavirus pandemic still active around the world, Saudi Arabia’s games with Yemen, Singapore, Palestine and Uzbekistan, originally due to take place in March, will be held some time next year.

“With the aim of protecting the health and safety of all participants, FIFA and the AFC will continue to work together to closely monitor the situation in the region and to identify new dates for the respective qualifying matches,” the AFC said in a statement. “Further details on the new dates for the next round of qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup 2023 will be announced in due course.”

It means that there have been no World Cup qualifiers in Asia since November 2019 when Saudi Arabia picked up a crucial 3-2 win over Uzbekistan in Tashkent.

The Green Falcons still have some work to do to finish on top of Group D and guarantee a place in the third stage where 12 teams battle it out for the continent’s four automatic places at the global tournament. The best four runners-up of the eight groups also progress to the next stage.

Hervé Renard’s men are a point behind leaders Uzbekistan, although they have played a game less and will go top if they defeat Yemen in Jeddah in the next game.

It remains to be seen when that will take place and when the second round, originally scheduled to have finished in June, comes to an end and the third stage, due to have started in September, can get going.

“From talking to various federations and hearing their concerns, it was clear that it was best to take a decision as early as possible,” an AFC official told Arab News.

With China announcing in July that it would not host any international sporting event for the rest of 2020 unless it was connected to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and other countries set to follow suit, the AFC felt it had little choice. “The situation was becoming more difficult and complex,“ the official said.

AFC staff admit that, assuming the sporting situation returns to something close to normal next year, then 2021 will be hectic. UEFA has already said that it will add extra games to international windows next year and while that is more difficult in Asia with travel demands, the AFC is looking to do something similar as well as find more spaces in an already-crowded calendar to add more games.

It also means that there will be greater demands on Saudi Arabia as the U-23 team will participate at the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics next July.

There is a silver lining, however. The postponement of World Cup qualifiers will make it easier for Saudi Arabian representatives in the AFC Champions League.

The 32-team competition was delayed in March after just two games in the group stage and will resume in mid-September in west Asia and a month later in the east.

Clubs had been concerned about squeezing in Champions League games during World Cup qualifiers. This was more difficult in the East where, unlike the West, leagues seasons are coming to an end. The K League, the J.League and the Chinese Super League still have many rounds remaining.

“Delaying World Cup qualification gives everyone much more breathing space to finish the Champions League,” an AFC official said.

It was announced in July that the rest of the western group stage — the tournament is split into two geographic zones until the final — will all take place in Qatar.

All four Saudi Arabian representatives are well-placed after two games to continue to the knockout stage. Al- Ahli lead Group A with four points while defending champions Al-Hilal share the lead in Group B with Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan after two wins. Al-Taawoun lead Group C, with Al-Nassr second in Group D.

The final is scheduled to be held on Dec. 5.