Opinion: Football is a populist pandemic punching bag | DW | 02.12.2021

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Last Saturday, Cologne beat local rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach 4-1 in the Bundesliga.

It was Cologne’s biggest derby win since 1996, but the reaction to the game was dominated by public outrage at the decision to allow 50,000 people to attend the game amid rising COVID-19 rates in Germany.

“We can’t have images like that again,” said Hendrik Wüst, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), where Cologne is located. “It’s not a good signal,” commented Bavarian state premier Markus Söder.

Among the new measures announced on Wednesday to combat the fourth wave, Bundesliga clubs will now have to reduce their capacities to between 30-50% up to a maximum of 15,000. In areas with particularly high rates, such as Saxony and Bavaria, matches will take place completely behind closed doors, costing clubs in those regions millions per matchday in ticket sales. Especially further down the Bundesliga and in Bundesliga 2, these are significant losses.

Yet, according to the city of Cologne, there are, as of yet, no new COVID-19 cases with any connection to the derby. Rather, coronavirus outbreaks have been traced to indoor events such as private parties, club nights, a basketball match, an elderly care home.

That’s no surprise. The derby between Cologne and Gladbach, like most Bundesliga matches, took place under “2G” conditions, meaning that the 50,000 attendees were all vaccinated or recovered.

It took place in the open air and, just like at previous Cologne Haighlights, which this reporter has attended personally, the relevant documentation was strictly checked at checkpoints outside the stadium — stricter than uin any other areas of life.

But now, football clubs and football fans are being punished again because full stadiums “send the wrong signal.” It’s a purely symbolic and populist argument.

On the contrary, full football stadiums are absolutely the right signal, a signal to those who still refuse to get vaccinated that doing so enables a return to normality.

Matt Ford

DW’s Matt Ford

Full stadiums are a positive signal

It’s no coincidence that the states with the highest vaccination rates also have the lowest infection rates.

In NRW, over 71% of the population have been vaccinated and the current infection rate (289.1) is well below the national average (442.9). In Saxony, on the other hand, and in some parts of Bavaria, vaccination rates are lower than 60%, contributing to horrific infection rates of over 1,000.

It is also no coincidence that the regions with the lowest vaccination rates and highest infection rates also happen to be bastions of support for the far-right AfD and other extreme political movements which have been peddling misinformation since the start of the pandemic.

Why should football fans who have acted responsibly, adhering to lockdown measures and getting themselves vaccinated, now pay the price because politicians elsewhere have failed to get a grip on the situation? Because football and its fans are always the punching bag.

Football is not to blame

At the start of the pandemic, football was accused of getting special treatment when the Bundesliga was allowed to restart, allegedly taking vital testing capacities away from medical services – none of which was true; the clubs produced and implemented a sophisticated hygiene plan at their own expense and many have since set up vaccination centers at their stadiums.

Non-vaccinated footballers have been blamed for encouraging anti-vaxxers, despite the fact that,as undoubtedly irresponsible as Joshua Kimmich is , only 86 out of over 1,000 footballers in the top divisions remain unvaccinated, as outgoing DFL head Christian Seifert told Süddeutsche Zeitung last week.

And football fans themselves have been portrayed as irresponsible for not wearing masks. These are the same football fans who were the first to call for the Bundesliga to be put on hold in 2020, who were the first to provide assistance to vulnerable groups, who are the most vocal and most consistent critics of football’s greed and commercialism.

There are all sorts of things to blame for Germany’s current pandemic mess: a slow vaccine rollout, the popularity of homeopathy and alternative medicine, far-right conspiracy theorists and Querdenker (a term originally used for people thinking outside the box, but now denoting mainly coronavirus deniers), and politicians who have failed to get a grip on a minority of extremists holding the rest of the country hostage.

But not football. And certainly not football fans.


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