After the final hurdles were cleared in their exhaustive strategy to relaunch the Bundesliga season, German football authorities were planning to hold the first match on May 15 - next Friday.
Last Wednesday Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the green light after a final round of discussions with the governors of the country's 16 federal states. The top-flight could resume games in the second half of this month. On Thursday Christian Seifert, CEO of the German Football League (DFL), announced that the next round of fixtures would begin on Saturday the 16th, because "Friday the 15th is not in the second half of the month". May, after all, has 31 days.
In this time of crisis, Germany's famous reputation for high-functioning efficiency has been a source of comfort. Their fastidious commitment to orderly management can have its comedic side when they are seen to be taking things perhaps a bit too literally - the 16th is the second half of the month, the 15th is not. But when the coronavirus pandemic came sweeping through, their monumental state apparatus was mobilised with a level of co-ordination and a thoroughness of implementation which ultimately saved thousands of lives.
The medical system at its peak was conducting 500,000 tests a week back in March and April. The overall machine moved fast and hard and with comprehensive effectiveness. It has paved the way for an early exit from the lockdown and their phased return to something resembling a normal resumption of civic society. The re-emergence of professional football is a powerful symbol of national recovery.
Hence, next Saturday afternoon the 2019/20 season will resume after a two-month hiatus. "This can only happen because we have the privilege to live in one of the most modern health systems in the world," said Seifert last week.
Eighteen teams compete in the Bundesliga; there are nine rounds left to play; Bayern Munich are on top, four points clear of Borussia Dortmund. The aim is to complete the season on the last weekend in June. An estimated €300m in television money is at stake for the clubs. As in England, economic survival has made the completion of the season urgent to the point of desperation. In preparing their case for government approval, the DFL drafted a health-and-safety manual for playing under coronavirus that ran to 50 pages. It is not just European football that will be watching the experiment with interest.
Seifert said they've been fielding calls from Tokyo to Los Angeles and many points in between. Germany's awesome testing capacity for Covid-19 has featured in many of these conversations. "If I were to name the number of tests that I was asked about in teleconferences with other professional leagues, with American professional leagues, with clubs from the NFL, the NHL, Major League Baseball and others, and I tell them how many tests are possible in Germany, they generally check, or there's silence, because it's just unimaginable in the system over there."
With all their preparations moving into place, right down to the most granular details, they still know that they cannot protect everyone inside the football bubble against the virus. It is a perilous undertaking: one outbreak of the infection in one squad could derail the whole operation. They are walking a high wire and they are doing so in the knowledge that if players or staff become seriously ill, a storm of criticism and controversy will follow.
They are not denying that the financial imperative is driving their plan. And it is so vulnerable to being scuppered by just a few outliers: two or three players who neglect the hygiene protocols or a bunch of fans who congregate somewhere to watch a game.
"Everyone has to be clear," said Seifert. "We are playing on probation."
Almost everything has to go right, very little can be allowed to go wrong. And to add to the pressure, the scrutiny will be global.
"People will be looking at us from all over the world," said Manuel Neuer, goalkeeper with Bayern Munich and captain of the national side. "This is an enormous responsibility for us, which we must be aware of with every fibre. It is now up to us. It is up to each individual at each club to bring this concept to life in a disciplined manner. We are particularly responsible for tens of thousands of jobs in diverse industries that live with and through football."
Neuer is clearly onboard with the strategy. But as in England also, there are undoubtedly many players with fears and misgivings. It remains to be seen how much choice they will have to opt out. There may be an element of unspoken coercion, a pressure to conform under the weight of the momentum that is picking up speed towards next weekend's opening.
Last Friday week it was announced that FC Cologne had three positive tests for Covid-19. In a television interview the next day, another Cologne player, the Belgian midfielder Birger Verstraete, contradicted a club statement that nobody else at the training ground had come into contact with the trio. He further explained that his girlfriend has a heart condition which left him very concerned about her contracting the virus.
"I think it would be naïve of myself and others to say that football should be resumed as soon as possible," he added. "It is not up to me to decide what to do with the Bundesliga, but I can say that my head is not on football at the moment."
On Sunday he was hauled in by the club and forced to issue a retraction. "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 FC Cologne."
On Monday the Hertha Berlin player Salomon Kalou, formerly of Chelsea FC, was suspended by his club for posting a video online that showed him breaking social distancing protocols with not a care in the world. It was a display of brainlessness that must have brought the DFL out in a cold sweat.
They are depending on footballers, some of them not unlike Kalou, to be the poster boys for this new dispensation. To which many people might say, good luck with that. Neuer emphasised that players now more than ever have to act as "social role models".
Kalou could also be seen waving a wage slip at the camera and complaining in jest about having to take a pay cut. If he wants to make his money back, it is television that will pay it. Sky Germany are gearing up for marathon broadcast sessions of live games from next weekend. As a sop to national solidarity they will make their highlights show available free-to-air for the first couple of weekends.
They are hoping for a bonanza of subscriptions from football-starved fans. BT Sport have the Bundesliga rights for Britain and Ireland and will likewise be broadcasting a record number of games from Germany.
Legions of supporters there are caught between excitement about the games and dejection at the prospect of watching them in empty stadiums. The latter is a phenomenon that has bequeathed a new addition to the Germanic lexicon of the Anglosphere - 'Geisterspiele'.
The veteran German football writer Christoph Biermann told The Athletic last week that while supporters have mixed feelings, they are pretty clear on one thing. "It won't be the Bundesliga that will be back," he said, "it's a ghost Bundesliga, it's not real football, it's Geisterspiele, without everything that makes football such a fantastic thing. A lot of (them) don't know what to expect. Will they be hooked to their drug when it starts again or will they be frustrated because it's not the real stuff?"
Right now it's a reasonable question but if the experiment collapses it might seem in hindsight to have been a bit picky, a bit choosy. In the current climate, one would have thought that half a loaf is better than no bread at all.
Sunday Indo Sport