Players Are the Pawns in Leagues' Plans to Return

There's reason for excitement as popular leagues ramp up for returns, but the players charged with carrying out the action aren't all at ease about potentially being put in harm's way.
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There is ample excitement as the Bundesliga braces for its return from a coronavirus-induced shutdown this weekend, and there's optimism and anticipation as more of its upper-echelon brethren across Europe and elsewhere plan to do the same.

There is one key contingent being largely omitted–or at least being taken for granted–throughout the decision-making process, though: the players.

Safety concerns and outbreak prevention have been paramount in the discussions, and all governing bodies have made that abundantly clear. But in most football associations, they don't seem to be valued as highly as the ability to rush back into action. There are heavy financial and sporting stakes in play, and, for the romantics, there's the morale-boosting element for nations seeking a worry-free distraction. 

It's incredibly difficult to ensure a virusless future even in the little football bubbles being created, though, and that's not enough to dissuade the most influential stakeholders from powering through. Five positive tests in Spain (out of 2,500) haven't derailed La Liga's return plan. Over 10 across Germany's two top flights didn't alter the calculus in the government's decision to give the green light, and 2. Bundesliga's Dynamo Dresden recording positive tests since hasn't changed the plan for anyone but Dynamo Dresden (whose personnel is now in a quarantine of 14 days).

"There is no point to beat around the bush that it is extremely important for the Bundesliga and for the individual clubs to get back on the field and play," Fortuna Dusseldorf sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel told CNN. "We are a league that is very much depending on the television money. So to get that, playing is obviously what you have to do."

Hertha Berlin trains before its return to action

England's "Project Restart" is next up, with the UK government permitting the Premier League and the levels beneath to start resuming matches as early as June 1 (given the training period required, a date later in the month is more realistic). More localized government isn't as encouraging, though. The office of London mayor Sadiq Khan doesn't believe the time is right, with the outbreak not nearly contained or on the decline.

“Sadiq is ... concerned about the welfare of players competing in all professional sports, not just football,” Khan's office said in a statement. “There are huge questions to be asked how players could train safely, how they would travel to matches and how they could play competitive matches without the risk of spreading infection.”

Those feelings are being echoed by some England internationals, including Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose.

“The moment we do go back we need to make sure it’s at a moment where it’s not just for footballing reasons, it’s safe for not just us footballers but the whole medical staff, referees,” Sterling, who said he's had family members die of the virus, said on his personal YouTube channel. “I don’t know how that’s going to work. I feel like once that side of the people’s safety and the player’s safety is secured and their well-being is being looked after, then that’s the right time to go back in. Until then, I’m … kind of reserved and thinking what the worst outcome could be, but at the same time looking forward to it.”

Rose was a bit more blunt about the risks. When addressing how the Premier League's potential return is being touted as a boon for the morale across the country, Rose teed off.

"I don't give a f--- about the nation's morale, people's lives are at risk," Rose said on Instagram Live. "Football shouldn't even be [spoken] about coming back until the numbers have dropped massively. It's bollocks. We'll see. I'm supposed to [be] tested on Friday, so we will just have to wait and see."

Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling are hesitant to return

Similar concerns have been felt in Spain and Italy, where La Liga and Serie A each have clubs expressing their fears over playing. In the former, Eibar's players and coaches released a statement revealing their hesitations.

“We are afraid of starting an activity in which we won’t be able to comply with the first recommendation of all health experts, physical distancing,” they said. “We are concerned that by doing what we love the most we could get infected and infect our family members and friends.

“Everyone’s health has to be prioritized. It’s time to make that count with actions, not only words. Only with that clear premise it would make sense to return to competition. We ask for guarantees. We demand responsibility.”

In the latter, Brescia has been even more outspoken. The club is based in the Lombardy region of Italy that has been decimated by the virus outbreak, and its captain says the whole team opposes returning.

“We don’t feel safe," Daniele Gastaldello said. "They’re asking us to resume training and to get back out onto the field right away, concentrating 12 matches in 1½ months. It’s putting all of the players’ safety on the line. I’m speaking for me and for my teammates. If the price of resuming is us getting seriously injured, it’s not worth it anymore. … We’re afraid.

"We’re all exposed, not just the players but also the equipment managers, the physical therapists, the massage therapists. Everyone inevitably comes into contact."

The club's president took it a step further, saying he'll forfeit the rest of the team's games if Serie A continues. Brescia sits in last place, nine points deep into the relegation zone. It's likely going to Serie B regardless (barring a voiding of the season or suspension of relegation), but forfeiting the rest of the season makes it a certainty. That doesn't seem to be a bother.

“This season doesn’t make sense anymore,” Massimo Cellino told La Gazzetta dello Sport in early April. “We’re all stopped, no team will return the same as before, matches played behind closed doors, and then there’s the risk to the health of the players.

“Returning to activity is pure craziness. If they force us to I am ready to not put out the team and lose the matches 3-0 by default out of respect for the citizens of Brescia and their loved ones who aren’t here anymore.

“I don’t care at all about relegation. So far we have deserved it and I have my blame in that, too. I’m speaking generally ... to prolong the season we would need to change all national and international rules — player contracts, balance sheets, deadlines with the banks, transfer market, preparation, start of the new season. Absolute chaos.”

Brescia opposes returning to play in Serie A

In North America, MLS is considering its options, and one of them reportedly is having all 26 teams traveling to Orlando for an undetermined period, living under quarantine and carrying out a chunk of the season. Players, who would have to be tested regularly in a country where there has not been an overabundance of tests, would not be able to have their families join, according to the Washington Post. That is sure to be a sticking point for some, and it's unclear as of now where the MLS Players Association stands on the issue as a whole.

The opposition views don't necessarily represent the majority, and it's worth noting that plenty of players globally have expressed their excitement about getting to do what they love again while still acknowledging the obvious uneasiness. Like in other sects of society, there are those who are petrified of having things reopen too soon and those who are adamant that life must go on despite these unprecedented times.  

Perhaps the extent of some of the worry won't prove to be fully justified if leagues, clubs and players are really following carefully constructed protocols. There clearly wasn't enough confidence in that happening in places like France and the Netherlands, where seasons have already been canceled. That's a lot of trust to put into hundreds (and even thousands) of people, though, and the worry is a significant piece of a complex puzzle. All eyes are on the Bundesliga starting this weekend to see what's really possible–and replicable. 

Nevertheless, if the plan to return is a game of chess, it's clear that the players are the pawns.