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Inside the Bundesliga’s plan to restart: an interview with Bayer Leverkusen’s Simon Rolfes

Bayer Leverkusen’s sporting director Simon Rolfes sat down with BFW to discuss the DFL’s plan to restart the Bundesliga and what Bayer 04 is doing to make that possible.

The German Football League (DFL) and its 36 member clubs are doing everything in their power to make it possible for the Bundesliga to resume the 2019/20 season — which has been suspended since early March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Uniquely among the major leagues in Europe, the Bundesliga has developed a plan to resume play while ensuring the safety of the players, staff, and fans.

Simon Rolfes, sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen — one of the major players in the Bundesliga and a Champions League contender — sat down with us virtually to discuss the DFL’s plans and what measures Leverkusen is taking specifically to make a potential restart a reality.

Optimism and solidarity across the league

We spoke the day after the DFL met to discuss its plan to resume the season. DFL president Christian Seifert announced at the following press conference that the league will be ready to play, but the ultimate decision rests in the hands of Germany’s politicians.

In Rolfes’ words, the Bundesliga clubs are “optimistic, because of course we all hope that the season continues – that it continues and that it continues in the near future.”

While they await a decision from Berlin and the states, clubs like Bayer Leverkusen are focused on training and preparing for “ghost games” while protecting their players and matchday staff.

“What we can do now as a club or as a league is assess how we can prepare as well as possible, think everything through, draft plans for everything – how the games will take place, what hygienic measures we have to take, how the whole matchday will be constructed,” Rolfes said. “That’s what we can do now.”

Rolfes emphasized that “there is very great solidarity within the league.” The clubs broadly support the DFL’s plan to resume the season. “There’s no major debate or differences,” Rolfes said.

Coronavirus - Video Press Conference of the German Football League
Christian Seifer gives a live-streamed press conference following the general meeting of the DFL.
Photo by Guido Kirchner/picture alliance via Getty Images

After the DFL’s meeting last week, the clubs are waiting to see whether German chancellor Angela Merkel and the minister-presidents of the German states give the Bundesliga the green light. Rolfes is cautiously optimistic:

“What happens next and when (this plan) can be implemented – that’s up to politics. We hope that we can play soon, but in the end we don’t know for sure.”

The only club with a “pandemic officer”: Bayer Leverkusen’s coronavirus measures

When the coronavirus began spreading in Germany in February, the club established a “coronavirus crisis team” that monitored developments week-by-week and introduced hygienic and safety measures in response.

Bayer Leverkusen was relatively well prepared for the epidemic. Uniquely among Bundesliga clubs, Bayer created a club “pandemic officer” four years ago. Rolfes explained how that prescient idea came about:

“I don’t think we predicted quite this situation four years ago, but it has to do with our owner, Bayer AG, as a medicinal company. It’s an important point for the Bayer AG. That was why this position was created a few years ago. Bayer has always attached great importance to and invested in a great many medications in this area and takes a very innovative approach.”

That readiness at the top has translated into numerous measures on the ground. Rolfes explained the club’s social-distancing and health precautions in detail. They start for the players first thing in the morning:

Bayer Leverkusen forward Leon Bailey is scanned for fever as part of the club's hygienic measures to fight the spread of coronavirus.
Bayer Leverkusen forward Leon Bailey has his temperature taken as he arrives for practice.
Photo courtesy of Bayer 04 Leverkusen

“With respect to the team, every morning they have to answer questions after waking up: whether they feel healthy, whether they have a fever, whether they are in contact with people who had the coronavirus, so that even before they are in the stadium we already have an initial, basic check as to the state of their health. When the players come into the stadium, we’ve installed a station that can measure a fever by camera. They have to take the next check there, before the can see any other people.”

“Those are the individual things, so to speak.”

At Bayer, only the professional team is currently using the BayArena. The team trains in small groups and uses multiple locker rooms (home, away, youth) so that the players can maintain social distancing while training. There are further measures beyond the obvious that Rolfes described:

“We are using the integrated hotel in the BayArena for showering, for example, where every player has his own room, so that there is very little chance of contact at all between the players. And of course, we are also staggering the groups over the whole morning and into the afternoon, so that the players have very little contact with people.”

The measures extend to meals: “Although normally the players are used to eating breakfast together before training and eating lunch together afterwards, that’s been stopped,” Rolfes said. “Instead we have packed ready-made sandwiches before training and after training provide a wrapped lunch that they can eat at home.”

Bayer Leverkusen’s preparedness and medical resources are moreover helping to reassure the club’s players. Rolfes described the effect on international players from regions hit more severely by the pandemic:

“In my conversations with the players, they are confident that they are being well taken care of here. I have noticed when I talk with the players – we have players from South America, from other parts of Europe – that they are glad to be in Germany and specifically at Bayer 04, because they know that medical care has extremely high priority and extremely high quality here. The fact that we are the only Bundesliga club that created a pandemic officer, four years ago, is a reflection of that.”

Defender Daley Sinkgraven practicing social distancing in the locker room.
Defender Daley Sinkgraven practicing social distancing in the locker room.
Photo courtesy of Bayer 04 Leverkusen

Ghost games with social distancing: the DFL’s plan

The DFL has developed a plan to implement similar social-distancing and safety measures across the Bundesliga when the season resumes. As Rolfes says, “The DFL task force has applied this same concept to games, for the whole Bundesliga.” That goes beyond the day-to-day business of training.

The DFL is concentrating “on what happens around the game — the teams, the players, and also the people who have to work in the stadiums”:

“They have a very precise plan: for example, at 12pm on matchday, who sets up what where and how? Who’s in the stadium at 12 and at 2? Who is in the stadium during the game, and outside the stadium, in what area? And for that they have a very, very precise plan to ensure that not only the players but also the people who are in the stadium always keep their distance and have very little contact.”

In contrast to plans discussed in the United States, such as the various proposals to resume Major League Baseball with players under quarantine for the duration of the season, the DFL is not currently planning to isolate the players during a potential restart. Rolfes said,

“No, thus far the players are at home just like usual and can drive to the stadium and training. There has not been any thought of putting the players in quarantine as a precaution. That of course requires a lot of accountability of the players — to hold back at home, limit social contact, and simply continue to reduce the probability (of infection). And as I’ve learned from conversations with them, they are aware of this responsibility, because they know how important it is to behave sensibly.”

Pressure to restart

One of the major pieces of news that emerged just prior to the DFL’s meeting with the clubs was a major deal that Christian Seifert negotiated with Sky and other Bundesliga broadcasting rights-holders, who agreed to pay the last installment of a multi-million deal, thus relieving several clubs of the threat of insolvency. That does not, however, increase the pressure on Bundesliga to resume playing, Rolfes said:

“No, I think that it was a major success by Christian Seifert to work that agreement with the rights-holders out. That is a testament to the rights-holders and broadcasters’ confidence in the DFL and the Bundesliga, that it will be able to organize games again in the near future.”

Rolfes stressed that the pressure to play has been high all along:

“There is pressure everywhere, in many areas of economic life. It hasn’t decreased in the Bundesliga or rather has not changed, but is has not increased because we have reached an agreement with the rights-holders. The Bundesliga was already under pressure, and it’s very similar in other economic sectors.”

Even as the crisis subsides, Rolfes anticipates that the Bundesliga will still be under pressure, like many sectors of society. “The pressure will still be there,” he said, “even with steps we hopefully take, because the effects of this extraordinary situation, this crisis, will last longer than a few weeks.”

Fair competition

Bayer Leverkusen has some additional incentive to hit the pitch again: when the Bundesliga season was suspended, Leverkusen was in fifth place — a Europa League spot — but in striking distance of second and the Champions League: just 4 points separate Bayer Leverkusen (47) from second-place Borussia Dortmund (51).

Rolfes was candid: “That’s one reason why we’d like to continue playing — because we want to play in the Champions League next year!”

But there have been some reservations about the fairness of the competition if and when the ball gets rolling again. Fortuna Düsseldorf’s CEO Thomas Röttgermann argued that the restart “must guarantee the competitive equality of every club. If that is not guaranteed in every facet, the question will arise as to what competitive value the games can have” (kicker).

In Rolfes’s view, that games will certainly feel different, not least because they will be played before empty seats, but the basic fairness of the competition will remain intact. He said,

“Of course, we are in a very good position, but I think the competition remains intact. This situation has changed it somewhat — the fact that you can’t train properly for such a long time, have no preparation, no long preseason with friendlies etc. That obviously exerts an influence. But the integrity of the competition is not jeopardized for that reason, because the influence is the same for every team.”

The Bundesliga definitely wants to avoid the cancellation of the season as has just occurred in the neighboring Eredivisie, which announced there will be no champion, no promotion, and no relegation this season.

The transfer market and Kai Havertz

Not only training and games have been affected by the coronavirus crisis. The entire transfer market has been shaken by the crisis and the league suspensions in Germany and across Europe.

Most relevant to Bayer Leverkusen and Rolfes as its sporting director, that has led to speculation about Bayer Leverkusen’s rising superstar Kai Havertz (20), who has been targeted by league rival Bayern Munich and other top clubs in Europe. Leverkusen’s head coach Peter Bosz predicted in March that Havertz would transfer out in the summer for a fee of €100 million or more. Asked whether Havertz might stay after all, Rolfes responded,

“He has a contract until 2022, so it was always an open question as to what happens with him in time or whether he transfers. If he takes the step up to a really big, big world club, that’s normal, because he simply has extraordinary quality.”

“As for how things develop now during the coronavirus crisis, for the time being the transfer market is quiet. Currently many clubs are asking what the forecast looks like for the next two or three months, when we will start playing again, when everything will become normalized again.”

But Leverkusen is nonetheless relaxed about Havertz’s situation and confident that even the current crisis will not dampen interest in such an exceptional player as Havertz. Rolfes said,

“Obviously the coronavirus crisis has influenced the transfer market, but players like Kai, who possesses extraordinary quality, are always interesting for clubs. We’re very relaxed about it. We’re in very good contact with him, his family and his agents, and we’ll see how things stand in the coming months or next year. We’re totally relaxed.”

Fans of Bayer 04 and the Bundesliga everywhere will be glad when we can again see stars like Havertz dazzle on the pitch, despite the extraordinary conditions of the coronavirus crisis. Currently, the DFL is waiting for the German government’s decision whether its plan may be executed. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the minister-presidents of the states will meet to discuss it on Thursday, April 30.

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