Last weekend saw the return of professional team sports. The Bundesliga, the german premier soccer league, started back up after games were suspended almost 2 months ago. Obviously, under strict rules to minimize the risks of infections for players and staff members. First of all, outside of the court, everyone had to stay 6ft away from each other. Reporters used microphone on long extendable sticks, no handshakes were given before or after the match and the players on the bench were placed in a long row along the sideline. Between games, teams stay in special hotels and have to be in quarantine throughout the remainder of the season. It is impressive how the germans have been able to develop this extensive protocol and it is even more impressive that they seem to be able to make it work, although some teams were doing a better job than others. Most noticeably, in a negative sense, were the Hertha BSC players who jumped on each other backs and gave out hugs after one of their goals. Something, that although publicly condemned, will not be punished by the league or law enforcement.
The return of professional football should have been a match to look forward to: Dortmund vs Schalke. For the people who don't know anything about the Bundesliga, this is a game between two clubs that reside 33 kilometres away from each other and is arguably the game with the most amount of fan attention in the entire league. It has been the stage for some truly epic battles in the past with Schalke's miraculous comeback from a 4 goal deficit at halftime only a few years ago fresh in the memory of fans. In theory, this was the perfect way to celebrate the amazing combined achievement of a nation doing their part in battling this virus, the progress countries can make when they get it right, and what value sports can add in this fight. However, while watching it, it felt like the complete opposite to me, it was a painful display of the effects the way a competition returns can have on players, staff and fans. It became clear that none of those reasons are what pushed this comeback. The league is going to finish because of money, and nothing else. To me, it pointed out something we should really consider when talking about, and planning to resume suspended competitions across the world: is resuming competitions a fair way of completing that competition?
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First of all, one thing that was clear from watching this game was a difference in physical preparedness between the teams. This was best illustrated at a corner kick at the end of the first half. The cameras showed Dortmund striker Erling Haaland and Schalke defender Jean-Clair Todibo. Haaland looked fit, sharp and ready to play while Todibo was visibly tired after only 45 minutes of play. The result of this physical difference was a completely lopsided game in which Dortmund was simply able to play at a higher pace than Schalke was, and they demolished their opponent winning the game with a crushing 4-0 score. This was just one example of a trend that could be seen across several matches. I wasn't the only one who noticed this problem. Musa Okwonga, host of the Stadio football podcast commented:
"you're not watching it [the Bundesliga] in the full capacity ... it's a different type of game to insure the survival of the Bundesliga, but not the same as normal".
This difference in physical fitness is one of the obvious problems with fairness the league is facing. This isn't a question of which team is the best at preparing their players. The difference in fitness wasn't down to the Schalke coaching staff's inability to train athletes. Different teams got different amounts of time to prepare. Although none of the teams were allowed to start full squad training more than 10 days before the restart, some got even less. For instance, Schalke supposedly only got 7 or 8 days, a possible difference of about 25% in preparation time. This is not taking into account how well players were able to keep up their fitness in the time before team training resumed, due to a host of factors such as personal home situation, team facilities and even a player's ability to find the motivation to do so. However, the different preparation time that each team got is only scratching the surface of the underlying unfairness of what is going on right now, and to understand that, we have to look at what scouts and coaches look for when selecting players, what these athletes spent their life training to be able to do but also what they are expected to be able to do.
When selecting players for your professional soccer team, there are several things that you look at. First and foremost, you obviously look at how good they are at soccer but that is not the only thing. You also look at the their physical attributes: how well they can handle a ~60 game season, how well they recover from intense physical strain? On top of that, you look at their mental abilities: can they cope well with high pressure situations, and do they thrive and excel in front of a big crowd? All these things together determine whether you want a player to join your squad or not.
In the current situation however, what is more interesting and important is what you haven't selected for. How quickly can a player be game ready or can they excel in an empty stadium? On top of that, I don't think any scout has ever asked themselves: "how well do I think this athlete can perform while having to mentally deal with the threat of attracting an infectious disease that can cause serious and lasting lung damage while being forced to be away from family and friends for an extended period of time?". The effect of these problems are already showing with some clubs having been tormented by high injury numbers due to the lack of preparation. Other clubs are forced to keep key players on the bench due to their lack of physical preparedness, again something that players cannot be held responsible for right now. Remember, that we can't see the mental demands that I just mentioned so we have no idea how much that is influencing each individual athlete.
That is the essence of the unfairness of resuming sports during this time. Whether an athlete is able to perform at or close to their best is suddenly determined by a completely different set of skills and attributes than the athlete was selected for, and, in my opinion, can be expected from an athlete. They are professionals that entered into a contract believing that certain character traits would help them, and suddenly find themselves in a situation in which a completely different set of attributes will lead to success. Currently, you are looking at the competition of which team had the most amount luck acquiring attributes they didn't select for nor did they know to select for. Ask yourself whether that is a fair way to finish a season.
The conclusion I made this weekend is that it is great to have some live sports back on TV. It provides entertainment for some (although not merely as many as they would like you to think) and it gives us hope that we will be able to do the things we love again at some point. I will enjoy watching the games as long as they can keep convincing me that it is safe to play them. On top of that, I am very aware that there aren't that many alternative ways to finish the current season and I don't even think that doing this to create income and insure the survival of your league is even a bad argument. However, while watching these games and, in the future, other sports when they return, be very aware of one thing: this is not a fair game. You are not watching the continuation of a season that was stationary for 2 months nor are you watching the beginning of a new season. What you are watching is a completely new competition, one in which success is determined by a completely different set of factors than we are used to. If you are okay with that, go enjoy the show.