Opinion: As football looks more and more unlikely, Europe shows us what could have been

Nancy Armour

German soccer officials will gladly share their knowledge and experiences, even their medical protocols, with other sports that want to resume playing. 

The one thing they can’t share? A sound government strategy to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and communal buy-in of protective measures.

As the chances of playing football this fall in the United States look increasingly grim, Germany’s soccer league has completed the season that was interrupted by COVID and is looking ahead to starting its next one in September – possibly with fans in attendance. England’s Premier League will wrap up its season this weekend.

Soccer even returned in Italy and Spain, the European countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

USA TODAY Sports explores the implications of our biggest sport being sidelined because of the coronavirus in this week's Fall Without Football series.

“I would go back to the government response to the overall COVID situation. They acted as quickly as possible, they acted clearly in terms of the guidelines,” Robert Klein, CEO of Bundesliga International, told USA TODAY Sports.

“And then we were able to rely on the individual states. … And then counting on the German population to act accordingly, which was seen widely, and able to limit the initial spikes.”

There are common themes in all return-to-play protocols, regardless of the sport. Social distancing. Masks. Limiting time in confined, indoor spaces, like locker rooms. Limiting the number of people at a stadium or training facility. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing of all equipment. Asking players to limit their interactions with people outside their families.

But perhaps the most significant factor in whether sports can resume is a government’s response to the pandemic. Specifically, a widespread and robust testing program that provides results quickly and allows for the quarantines and contact tracing that will limit the spread of infection in the community.

In Germany, for example, within two weeks of the Bundesliga shutting down, the country was conducting some 500,000 tests a week. That meant when the league resumed play, it could be confident in getting quick results and that it was not taking tests away from the rest of the country.

The Bundesliga conducted more than 1,700 tests before play resumed. After that, players, team personnel and anyone who was going to be in the stadium were tested twice a week, Klein said, with tests done 24 hours before a game. Anyone who tested positive was not allowed in the stadium.

Positive tests were reported to local health authorities, who were responsible for managing quarantine protocols. But other than second-division Dresden having to postpone two games after the initial round of testing, no games were delayed or canceled.

Since the Premier League resumed in mid-June, at least 1,800 tests have been done each week. As of July 12, there had been three positive tests, and no canceled games.

In Spain, where La Liga’s top division wrapped up Sunday, players were initially tested every day – and also tested for antibodies. If a player tested positive after a game, the league planned to use video replay to identify other players that were exposed.

Bayern Munich players celebrate with the trophy after winning the German soccer cup (DFB Pokal) final match between Bayer 04 Leverkusen and FC Bayern Munich in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, July 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

La Liga also assigned someone to each team to monitor whether the team was following safety protocols. The monitors reported to the league each day, and corrective measures were imposed if there were problems. 

“We worked very hard, shoulder to shoulder with the government, to make this possible,” La Liga president Javier Tebas told Sports Illustrated last month.

“I think it’s because our health care protocol is really very efficient, has been very efficient, and it has reduced the risk of infection of our players to the maximum, both during training sessions and during the games themselves.”

It’s true there is less contact in soccer than in football, and Klein said the low amount of “consistent contact” in soccer gives that sport an advantage. But American football teams at all levels are struggling simply to get through off-season workouts, with several having to curtail them after a number of players tested positive.

Meanwhile, whatever hesitancy European players might have shown in the early games quickly disappeared. They’re playing full speed, and making full contact. They’re even high-fiving each other and having communal goal celebrations.

“As more and more match days went through and tests kept coming back (it was clear) that the medical specialists who had put together these concepts had gotten it right,” Klein, of the Bundesliga, said.

The NWSL and MLS have had similar success -- once they actually began playing games. But their tournaments are occurring in a bubble, and that’s simply not feasible for football. What happened prior to entering the bubble is probably more indicative of football’s challenges.

The Orlando Pride dropped out of the NWSL Challenge Cup four days before it began after six players and four staff members tested positive. Dallas and Nashville were removed from the MLS tournament after multiple players tested positive in their first few days at the tournament.

The federal government left COVID-19 responses up to the individual states, and many that re-opened quickly – including Florida, Texas and Tennessee -- are now seeing massive spikes in cases. And with no national testing program, the length it takes to get results varies so widely that some people are waiting a week or more, making containment efforts moot.

“I’m not saying we have the solution, because every country is different,” Klein said.

But there’s no ignoring the obvious: In countries where the government had a comprehensive response to COVID that was rooted in science, and the public was supportive of containment measures, people got their sports back.  

“That 16th of May is going to stay etched in my memory forever,” Klein said. “The overwhelming sense was one of relief, but also touched with happiness of some normalcy coming back.”

If only that were the case here.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.