German soccer faces uphill battle to convince public, fans

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FILE – In this Feb. 18, 2017 file photo, players challenge for the ball in front of the empty south tribune because of a ban following fan trouble during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and VfL Wolfsburg at Germany’s biggest stadium in Dortmund, Germany. Bundesliga will now restart on May 16, 2020 when Dortmund will play the derby against Schalke at home without spectators due to the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, file)

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — The German politicians have been persuaded to allow soccer to resume in the country despite the coronavirus pandemic. The public, it seems, still needs to be convinced.

Three polls from German broadcasters published Thursday and Friday showed at least half of respondents saying they are against the plan to restart the season.

The top two divisions will resume on May 16 following a two-month suspension, playing in empty stadiums. The decision was made after German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with state governors on Wednesday and gave their approval.

But even German soccer’s hardcore fans — whose colorful displays are usually a major part of the league’s marketing appeal — have their doubts about playing without fans inside the venues.

“Soccer without fans is nothing,” read a joint statement from several Bayern Munich fan groups after the league decided Thursday on a restart date. “Soccer alone in front of the TV at home can be nice, too. But it would surely never have developed into a mass phenomenon.”

When the Bundesliga hosted its first game in an empty stadium in March, shortly before the league was suspended, hundreds of Borussia Mönchengladbach fans gathered outside and celebrated a win with the players. Fan groups from various clubs have asked their members not to stage a repeat when games resume.

High-profile German athletes in Olympic sports, too, have raised concerns about special treatment for soccer at a time when they can’t compete and some can’t train.

When the season was suspended, Bayern held a four-point lead over Borussia Dortmund. Leipzig was a point further behind in third.

“What happened earlier this season doesn’t matter any more. Everyone’s starting from scratch,” Bayern coach Hansi Flick told the dpa news agency. “Games without spectators are something particular. It’s all about the mentality.”

Bayern players trained in Munich on Friday on a field enclosed by a large curtain before moving into a hotel for a quarantine period — a league requirement — ahead of their first game on May 17 at Union Berlin.

Other clubs are finding creative ways to adapt.

Werder Bremen coach Florian Kohfeldt said he is moving training sessions to the stadium as his team prepares to host Bayer Leverkusen on May 18.

“We’re training all the time in the same atmosphere that there will be on game day,” Kohfeldt said.

World players’ union FIFPro will be watching Germany closely for possible injuries and illnesses resulting from shortened training periods and packed schedules, general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann told The Associated Press on Friday.

“The Bundesliga are the first ones coming back. Their protocol will certainly be viewed by many around the football world as a test,” Baer-Hoffmann said. “It remains to be seen whether it’s successful, of course, with the health of everybody involved. You hope for it to be successful.”

Even Germany’s plan to test players regularly — using at least 20,000 tests by the end of June — may not be enough, Baer-Hoffmann added.

“Perhaps actually a higher number would be necessary to really close the gap on the infection risk,” he said.

Germany could also be the first major European league to take advantage of a rule change allowing teams to use two extra substitutes.

The International Football Association Board said Friday that competition organizers can allow five substitutes, or a sixth in extra time, to reduce the workload on players with busier schedules than usual. It will only apply this year.

German league CEO Christian Seifert said Thursday the league was following developments but hadn’t yet decided on making the change.

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AP Global Soccer Writer Rob Harris in London contributed to this report.

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