Bayern Munich wrapped up its eighth consecutive Bundesliga title Tuesday with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Werder Bremen.
Robert Lewandowski’s goal, his 31st in the league this season, at the end of the first half secured the three points to give Bayern an unassailable 10-point cushion over Borussia Dortmund.
This title will likely live long in the memory given the bizarre circumstances in which it was won.
Bayern’s players celebrated their victory inside Bremen’s near-empty 42,000-capacity Weserstadion, their joyous shouts echoing around the deserted stands.
No fans have been allowed to attend matches since the Bundesliga returned a month ago, the first major European football league to do so, after a 10-week break due to the coronavirus.
Football is vastly different now compared to the pre-coronavirus era, and it’s been a strange return to the sport for these players, though Bayern’s seven consecutive wins since the break perhaps prove that nothing much at all has changed at the top of German football.
Speaking in an exclusive interview to CNN Sport before Bayern wrapped up its 30th German top-fight title, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer describes how his world has shrunk over the last few months.
“We’re actually only allowed to go to the stadium, the training ground and back home,” the German international keeper said, as Neuer reflected on how a global pandemic has changed Germany.
While the country is slowly starting to open up and cafés, restaurants and shops fill with people desperate for a return to a semblance of a social life, professional footballers are following strict guidelines, despite the resumption of the Bundesliga season on May 16.
“We have to socially distance on planes and buses,” added Neuer. “We sit at single tables during meals and wear masks all the time until we actually start to eat.
“All hygienic measures are constantly carried out until you get home. Even then we are not allowed to shop for groceries or go to a restaurant.”
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‘You get used to everything’
Being the consummate professional he is, the World Cup winner sees no reason to complain.
“It is certainly an extra effort,” he shrugs, before adding: “You get used to everything.”
“Everywhere in the world people had to adjust and this affects our job – playing football – too.”
Being the first major European league to resume playing meant all eyes were on the Bundesliga last month. Bayern has adapted seamlessly adapted and won the title at a canter after the restart.
“There will always be critics,” said Neuer. “If we hadn’t started by now, they would have asked why we’re not starting.
“I have to say that since the start the players have handled the situation exemplary and we hope that it will continue like that.
“I think that our league – also because we were the first ones [to resume] – will set a positive example for other European leagues, and you hope they can put that into practice as well.”
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The English Premier League restarts on June 17, though a number of leading players have voiced their concerns.
Notably Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero and Tottenham’s Danny Rose questioned the restart before returning to training,
However, Neuer believes the way the Bundesliga has handled the situation can send out a message of hope to all club staff anxious about their own and their families’ wellbeing.
If playing matches without fans isn’t ideal, Neuer has tried to see the positive sides of the Geisterspiele (ghost games), too.
“Good advice would be to communicate a lot on the pitch and to help each other out. There is a lot you can gain just from speaking to one another.
“It is a massive advantage that you can communicate and actually understand each word [on the pitch].”
It is all about the bigger picture, says Neuer, who knows that there is more at stake than just his desire to play football.
“It is not just about wanting to play; it is our job. Jobs within clubs and their existences depend on us.
“We know that it is all down to us and we try to implement [the rules] so that the ball can continue to roll.”
With the Bundesliga title secured, Neuer and his teammates will turn their attention to winning the German Cup and the Champions League.
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There are still last-16 matches to play, with the tournament reportedly to be concluded over 11 days in Lisbon.
“We are happy the Champions League will be back and we will take the start as it comes. Everyone wants to play this tournament,” said Neuer, who would like to add yet another European Cup winners medal to his trophy cabinet.
Asked about teams like Lyon or Paris Saint-Germain having an advantage after Ligue1 was canceled, Neuer just shrugs.
“They won’t have much free time either. They might have gone on one holiday, if even possible, but they will still have to train.
“Others, like the Premier League or Serie A, will have to keep playing throughout, which could also be seen as a disadvantage.
Bayern beat Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge in their last-16 first leg tie and Neuer is confident the Bundesliga team will make it through because coping under pressure is what “makes teams like Bayern Munich stand out.”
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‘Contributing to an era’
Neuer is equally excited about Bayern winning an eighth consecutive league title. For Neuer, who has won the previous seven titles, number eight will still be a special one.
“It is an extraordinary situation and we are on a record run.
“If you can keep extending the record that started with greats like Phillip Lahm or Bastian Schweinsteiger and continue with all the new players that joined, it feels like you’ve contributed to an era.”
If Neuer has filled many pages in football history books, he is eager to write yet another in this truly extraordinary time in world history.
To succeed now he feels would be to defy critics of the restart and give hope to millions struggling during this global crisis. It’s really just more of the same for Neuer, striving to protect Bayern’s goal no matter the obstacles thrown his way.
“I did it at the age of 20 and will continue at 34,” he says simply.