DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) – It could have been the match of a lifetime for fans of the German football club Union Fürstenwalde, taking on Bundesliga Wolfsburg in its 2,000-seat stadium. The coronavirus made it impossible.
Northeastern regional league Fürstenwalde are one of 11 German clubs in the fourth and fifth divisions that have given up their beloved home advantage against much bigger opponents at the start of the German Cup this weekend.
Instead of playing in front of a passionate crowd of locals trying to intimidate Bundesliga visitors, Fürstenwalde will head to Wolfsburg’s empty reserve stadium.
Under normal conditions, Fürstenwalde could hope to earn 350,000 euros ($ 410,000) from his first German Cup match and invest it in the club’s future, club spokesman Fred Wilczek told The Associated Press.
This season he had to spend a large part of the prize pool of a regional qualifier competition to adapt the stadium to TV, with a significantly reduced viewership even though the club had local authority approval. The situation during the pandemic is “extremely problematic,” Wilczek said.
The first round of the German Cup is a traditional showcase for amateur and semi-professional teams, which automatically gain the advantage at home against clubs in the higher divisions. It usually brings unexpected fortune in ticket sales and television exposure, so the competition to qualify via regional cups is fierce.
The home crowd can lift obscure teams to a surprise – or more – victory on the national stage. Last season, fourth division club Saarbrücken knocked out two Bundesliga clubs at home on their way to the semi-finals before being beaten by Bayer Leverkusen in an empty stadium amid the pandemic.
This season, the strict coronavirus rules have left small clubs facing large costs to play at home, or simply a stark rejection by the German football authorities.
In addition to testing players for COVID-19, clubs must divide the stadium into three work zones to strengthen the social distance between people working in different roles before and during the match. Even for a Bundesliga club it is an organizational headache. In a cramped or ramshackle amateur stadium, it may be impossible.
Fifth-tier club Rielasingen-Arlen complained to the German football federation, known as the DFB, forcing it to forgo the home advantage despite attempts to prove it could safely host in its own stadium or other local grounds.
Rielasingen-Arlen said the DFB would only accept the club using the Freiburg top division arena, which was not available. Rielasingen-Arlen has now allowed second division opponent Holstein Kiel to hold the match.
“With a heavy heart we had to hand over the hosting rights for the DFB Cup match against Holstein Kiel. We had to give in to the great pressure that the DFB inflicted on us, ”the club said in a statement.
The DFB allowed reigning Bayern Munich champion to move his first round match against fifth division club Düren back one month to October 15. This gives Bayern more time to recover after winning the Champions League final. That match will also be played in Bayern’s home stadium.
German football fan rules during the pandemic are a patchwork of regulations from different local authorities. Bundesliga club Mainz hopes to have 1,000 fans when they host fourth division club Havelse. Schalke want to invite 300 workers from hospitals and nursing homes to watch him play Schweinfurt. Both Havelse and Schweinfurt have forfeited their home advantage citing the burden of hosting under coronavirus-related restrictions.
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