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1.FC Köln, Bundesliga pressing on despite players testing positive for COVID-19

The new reality

Coronavirus - Cologne Photo by Roberto Pfeil/picture alliance via Getty Images

While some leagues have already decided to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 football season, others continue to press on. First and foremost among those still fighting are the Bundesliga, with the eyes of the rest of the football world on them as they try to pioneer a way through this quagmire.

They were the first to set guidelines for restarting and the first to resume individual training, and, presumably, will be the first to return to “normal” training and then actual playing as well. But, quite unsurprisingly, they were also the first to report new cases of COVID-19 — the disease that isn’t going away until at least a vaccine is developed and distributed in a year or two’s time.

At the end of last week, 1.FC Köln confirmed that three people tested positive, which, as it turned out, included one physiotherapist and two players. The club did not release that information; that tidbit came from another player, Birger Verstraete who went on Belgian television to blab about non-public information, plus to criticize the club for their handling of the situation, including the fact that they continued with training on Friday.

Verstraete called the decision to not quarantine the entire team a “bit bizarre”, especially with he himself having received attention from said physiotherapist “for weeks” and getting paired up for a workout in the gym with one of the players who tested positive on the day of.

“We train in two groups and you know that the boys were extremely close to me. The test was done on Thursday around 4 p.m. and before that we had been together constantly from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. We did fitness work together, trained together. Thursday’s test didn’t show that I am positive and that is why there will be another test tomorrow.”

“[The] physiotherapist is the man who treated me and other players for weeks. And I paired up with one of the two players in the gym on Thursday. So to say we did not come into contact with them is not entirely correct.”

“It’s not up to me to decide what to do with the Bundesliga but I can say that my head is not on soccer. If you see how close (the virus) is. The health of my family, girlfriend – everyone in fact – is paramount.”

-Birger Verstraete; source: VTM via The Intelligencer

Fearing for his girlfriend’s safety, who’s had a previous heart condition, Verstraete sent her back to Belgium “for the time being”.

And the team’s decision to conduct testing at the END of training rather than before training is certainly questionable, though it’s presumably a result of the test not being instantaneous (i.e. overnight) and the team having instituted rolling testing (i.e. the previous day’s test results clear players for next day’s training).

Verstraete’s comments certainly caused a bit of stir, but Köln and the rest of the Bundesliga are continuing to press on undeterred. (There was another “inconclusive” test at Stuttgart last week, but otherwise all other tests have come back clear.)

Köln marshaled the team doctor to explain that the club’s actions were in-line with the authorities’ guidelines — i.e. thanks to widespread testing, just because a co-worker tests positive, you don’t have to quarantine the entire company — and Verstraete himself released a statement on the official club website that unfortunately sounds more forced than genuine but hey.

“After the three positive tests at FC were made known, I gave an interview about my personal concerns about my girlfriend potentially getting the virus. I expressed myself falsely in a few places, so that in the translation a misunderstanding has came about and I am sorry for that.

“Instead of giving an interview out of emotion, I should have contacted our doctor and had my questions answered. It was not my intention to blame the responsible authorities or 1. FC Köln.

“I feel comfortable and in good hands with FC. I will continue to give my all in training and in mates at FC and I want to end the season in Köln. My girlfriend, who belongs to the risk group because of a previous heart disease, will head home to Belgium and stay there for the time being.”

-Birger Verstraete; source: 1.FC Köln

Stay strong, Birger!

Despite these and similar reservations by players and many others, the Bundesliga and Köln are forging ahead. Or at least trying to.

In fact, on Sunday, Köln announced plans for their “quarantine-like” training camp as soon as government officials give the go-ahead for games to resume. This was apparently always the plan, but with this announcement coming so soon after the Verstraete incident, it does give the appearance of the club (and the league?) closing ranks and pushing ahead perhaps against knowing better.

“When we go into team training, that means body contact. This can only happen between players when, according to the medical concept of the DFL, that they are all in the knowledge that every member of the training group has tested negative for the virus. We want to reduce the risk of the team being infected from the start and then all can get used to the new situation. Therefore, for us, it is the best option to stay with one another and concentrate on our preparation. Just like in a training camp.”

-Horst Heldt; club director; source: 1.FC Köln

These are the sorts of issues that will need to be figured out to a satisfactory degree before the Premier League can even begin to think about taking similar steps.