“Football with social distancing and masks doesn’t work,” stated Union Berlin president Dirk Zingler this week, announcing that the Bundesliga club intends to carry out a full-capacity test event with 22,012 spectators on October 25.
With the help of so-called “quick tests” paid for by the club, Zingler hopes to enable fans to pack into the Stadion an der Alten Försterei safely with no need for masks or social distancing, and reduce the potentially existential financial threat to Union Berlin.
“Much of what we have built up in recent years has been wiped out in the space of a few months,” he told public broadcaster ARD, speaking of “millions of euros in double figures” by the end of this year.
Zingler’s plan has prompted mixed reactions. While some Union supporters, who struggle to access tickets at the best of times, might welcome a return to full capacity, concerns remain. With infection levels in Berlin rising and city’s Senate banning events with over 5,000 attendees, local newspaper Berliner Zeitung called the proposal “irresponsible” and accused the club of planning to “use fans as test hamsters.”
Whether Zingler’s test goes ahead and under what conditions remains to be seen. Until then, Union and the other 17 clubs in Germany’s top flight are bound by the current hygiene regulations which allow Bundesliga clubs to operate at up to 20% of stadium capacity.
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s first game of the season was played in front of a spattering of fans in Dortmund,
On theopening weekend, this saw a total of 45,800 fans attending Bundesliga matches across six stadiums. Bayern Munich’s opener against Schalke as well as Cologne’s home game against Hoffenheim took place behind closed doors after infection rates in the two cities rose above 35 per 100,000 in the previous seven days.
In Berlin, 4,600 fans witnessed Union’s 3-1 defeat by Augsburg. The club believes the day went well, while both fans and journalists who were present report that social distancing was largely maintained and that identity cards were checked “diligently” along with tickets, in order to enable contact tracing in the event of infection.
Back to Borussia: ‘an emotional plus’
This weekend, Union travel to Borussia Mönchengladbach, who will open up the Borussia Park to 10,800 season-ticket holders – as long as the local infection rate in the western German city (currently at 8.8) remains low.
According to club chief executive Stephan Schippers, Gladbach usually make around €20 million per year in ticket revenues. The estimated €4 million earned by opening up at 20% capacity is therefore hardly sufficient to plug the gap, but Schippers insists that, for the time being, some things are more important than money.
“It’s a huge emotional plus,” he said on Wednesday, presenting the club’s detailed hygiene concept to journalists. “The players notice it, they said so after our cup game against Oberneuland [8-0, attendance: 300 – editor’s note], and the emotional connection to our supporters is extremely important.”
Nevertheless, he lamented that not all tickets have been sold, saying: “We notice that people are more hesitant to buy tickets, perhaps because they have respect for the situation or because they want to see how it goes first with 20% capacity.”
When local newspaper Rheinische Post asked readers on social media why they hadn’t purchased tickets, fans also highlighted the fact that only individual seats could be purchased and that even group or family members must have three empty seats between them, taped up to prevent their use.
Bundesluga clubs continue to trial various ways to allow fans back, with some more ambitious than others.
Even among those who had purchased tickets, there was a note of caution. “I want to see how it goes and I’m glad to be able to support the team in a competitive match again, but if the regulations aren’t adhered to, I won’t come again,” responded one fan, although others expressed trust in the club’s “chessboard” hygiene concept.
“It doesn’t matter how many or how few fans are present, it’s definitely going to be a better atmosphere,” wrote one fan. “It’s also a chance for us as fans to show that we can behave properly and stick to the rules. And of course, it’s a chance to see friends again – albeit socially distanced.”
But for others, a watered-down experience just won’t be the same. “I go to games to stand in the Nordkurve with my friends and to cheer Borussia on with the ultras, it’s not just about watching the game,” wrote one fan who will be staying away. “Of course, 10,000 fans are better than 300 or even none, but it’s not for me, personally.”
On the insistence of the local Fan Project in Mönchengladbach, there will be a “singing section” in Block 16 of Borussia Park, but Schippers admits that the requirement to wear a mask at all times is not necessarily conducive to singing.
No ultras but ‘no need to fear for fan culture’
As for the ultras, leading Gladbach group Sottocultura, like most of their counterparts around the country, have already stated that they won’t be attending until normal service is resumed.
“We understand that these measures are necessary but it’s not what we associate with our fan culture,” they said in a statement. “Fan culture lives from community, closeness, chaos, spontaneity and free space, things which are simply not possible with social distancing, personalized tickets and complete regulation.”
Sottocultura and other organized fan groups across Germany are extremely protective of their fan culture and have voiced fears that temporary security measures implemented to combat coronavirus could be made permanent. “Any attempts from federations, police or politicians to exploit the current pandemic as an excuse to ban standing terraces or retain personalized tickets permanently must be nipped in the bud,” they insist.
When asked about such concerns by DW, chief executive Schippers said that the club has been in contact with supporter representatives throughout the crisis and insisted that Gladbach fans have nothing to worry about.
“I can only speak for Borussia Mönchengladbach, but we are advocates of fan-friendly football,” he said. “That includes standing terraces and generally doesn’t include personalised tickets. Under the current circumstances, these are necessary evils, but I am not worried [about them becoming permanent]. I don’t know any other club representatives who have any such plans up their sleeves – and you can hold us to that in the future.”
As for the proposals of Union Berlin president Zingler, Schippers said he “welcomes all creative ideas in principle” but did question the feasibility of the plan. “I know how much a ticket costs and I know how much a test costs. Does it make sense? I don’t know. But I’m happy to consider any ideas to find a way back to ‘normality.'”
Until then, for fans of Borussia Mönchengladbach, Union Berlin and other Bundesliga clubs, football with social distancing and masks will have to work.