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Men's Soccer Returns In Germany

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When will it be safe enough for sports to return? That's a question many fans have been asking throughout this pandemic. It's also a question that is extremely hard to answer for authorities and sports officials all over the world.

In Germany, a nation that has been applauded for being more successful than most in keeping its coronavirus infection rate low, professional men's soccer returned last weekend after a two-month break. But games were different. They were held without fans in the stands. Players and coaches had all been quarantined before the matches. And everybody involved is subject to repeated COVID-19 tests.

Sports leagues everywhere, including here in the U.S., are considering similar scenarios for their restarts. So is soccer leading the way back to competitive sports? We're going to talk about that now with Roger Bennett, who covers soccer for NBC Sports. And he is the co-host of the "Men In Blazers" podcast.

Rog, welcome back.

ROGER BENNETT: Oh, double M, it's a joy to hear your voice.

MARTIN: Likewise. Well, first of all, as a soccer fan - or, as you would say, a football fan - how have you been handling the last two months without your favorite sport?

BENNETT: Yeah. For me, as someone that uses football but sports of all kinds to experience human emotions like happiness or sadness, hope, shattered dreams - things that people who are normal feel in real life, but I'm long numb to - the lack of sports has been fairly devastating - a bit like a phantom limb. Yeah, even I'm fully aware, Michel, of the existential danger that we're all in at this time of pandemic and missing sports.

Even for me, I realize it's a luxury compared to the fight to eat, to work and even breathe. There's a legendary football manager of the 1970s and '80s, a Liverpool legend called Bill Shankly. He used to famously say, football isn't a matter of life or death. It's much more important than that.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BENNETT: Over the past seven weeks, that's been shown to be very wrong.

MARTIN: Well, what did you think of Germany's restart plan? I mean, what - how did you experience it? What did you think of it?

BENNETT: Well, on one level it was magnificent. The pregame excitement for me was as great as any game outside of a World Cup. But these closed-door games - what they call in Germany Geisterspiel (ph) - ghost games - the Germans always have a word for it - the whole sports world is watching. Everybody I spoke to in the NFL, in the NHL, in the NBA were as tuned into it as the world of football. And it was a weird spectacle. It was football shorn of handshakes, of spitting and, most importantly, of fans. It was just the players, the coaches, the match officials in the stadium.

And the most joyous thing in the 90 minutes of the game that I watched the first game, which was engrossing, was exhilarating, was incredibly calming - there was for that time, again, all sports fans were connected via Twitter to a global conversation, a human conversation that embraced the whole world like a giant, joyous eclipse in a positive way that only sports could provide.

MARTIN: Well, you know, on the other end of it, though, the - I think it would be fair to say the most prestigious soccer league in the world right now is the English Premier League.

BENNETT: True.

MARTIN: They're looking at possibly restarting in June. But a few of the players have voiced concerns that it's too soon or that they could bring the virus home to their families. Is that likely to derail plans to restart?

BENNETT: So the Premier League has grappled with the desire to come back - a desire that's been enhanced by the fact that the teams will lose a billion dollars if they cannot complete the season, which has nine games to go, from broadcasters around the world who paid for a complete season. So the teams are desperate to get back.

Many of the players are afraid, particularly - there's a demographic in England called BAME - Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic - and the difference in COVID-19 death rates between white Britons and black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons - I think it's up to 10 times more for those who are of the BAME demographic.

So a lot of the black players have said, we will not come back - particularly ones who have kids. There's a player, Trudini (ph), who has a 5-month-old child with serious asthma. He's refused to come back and train. He says these are simple questions about the health protocols and gotten no answers right now.

But the Premier League does want to come back. The billion dollars means it needs to come back, hell or high water. So expect English ghost games to fill our screens again by the end of June. And if they do, my Lord, the nation will love every single second of them.

MARTIN: And what about that, though? I mean, that there are some leagues in Europe - I think in the Netherlands, France and Scotland, for example - how would you describe what they decided to do? They just said...

BENNETT: Voided - they voided. You'd say they voided.

MARTIN: They voided, right. And so whatever team was on top are the champions. So what is the thinking about that?

BENNETT: Well, the league sort of cancelled in the Netherlands, in France, in Scotland. There's no financial imperative to continue. And they are balancing entertainment and commercial interests and morality. But when you speak to Premier League owners, they say it's not just about starting. Ultimately, they are expecting that this is the new normal that they may have to adapt to for several years. And it's an industry which is huge money, but it also has incredible cash flow problems.

I think Warren Buffett once said, it's only when the tide goes out you realize who's been swimming naked. And a number of these big British clubs - a number of major American sports teams, too - have no option from a cash flow perspective other than to try and throw themselves back into action.

And when the Bundesliga is about to start, the head of the Bundesliga, Christian Seifert - he said, this is not going to be perfect. It's fragile, but it's going to be the best imperfect it can be. And I think British football and ultimately American sports will follow that pathway.

MARTIN: That was Roger Bennett of NBC Sports and co-host of the "Men In Blazers" podcast.

Always a pleasure, Rog - good to hear your voice. Thanks for joining us.

BENNETT: Oh, Michel, courage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.