Exactly 50 years after a special convention of German football representatives voted to create the country’s first national championship, the Bundesliga continues to go from strength to strength, a beacon of sound economic values, impressive infrastructure, fan-friendliness and, above all, entertainment.
Franz Kremer, the late president of Cologne who is widely considered to be the Bundesliga’s founding father, must surely be beaming with pride as he puffs on his trademark cigar in that great boardroom in the sky. In the space of half a century, his dream has gone from drawing board to sporting, commercial and social phenomenon, and it says much for the model he put in place
that, even in these times of worldwide austerity, it has carried on booming.
The Bundesliga may not quite have the glamour of the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A, but it does not want for attacking football, thrills and spills, and box-office appeal. Top-flight attendances have risen in each of the past 10 years, with last season’s average of 44,713 being up 2,500 on the previous campaign. Given the affordability of tickets, the glut of comfortable, modern stadia and the deep-rooted love of the game in the country, it’s hard to see the trend going into reverse any time soon.
As exemplified by the risk-heavy, all-or-nothing approach of current champions Borussia Dortmund, Germany really is the place to go for action, incident and the ball hitting the back of the net. For the best part of two decades the Bundesliga has outscored the other major European leagues. While there was a 20-goal fall-off in the total goals scored last term, an average per match of 2.86 was still enough for the Bundesliga to stay ahead of its English, Spanish and Italian counterparts.
Just as Germany’s national team has benefited enormously from the millennium revamp of the entire youth-development system, so have
the country’s top-flight sides. Club academies and regional schools of excellence are churning out wave upon wave of technically accomplished and tactically astute young players and, encouraged by the strict financial guidelines all teams have to abide by, clubs need little encouragement to take the value-for-money home-grown route.
Last season the average age of a Bundesliga player was 25.76 years – the lowest figure since the 1973-74 season – and what’s inescapable right now is the ever-growing band of starlets in their teens or early 20s. Notable performers on a regular basis include goalkeepers Ron-Robert Zieler of Hanover and Gladbach’s Marc-Andre Ter Stegen; defenders of the class of Dortmund’s Mats Hummels and new Bayer Leverkusen centre-back Philipp Wollscheid; the brilliant Dortmund midfield trio of Kevin Grosskreutz, Ilkay Gundogan and Mario Gotze; the ever-improving Bayern playmaker Toni Kroos; and bright-eyed forwards such as Schalke’s Julien Draxler and Marco Reus, who has become the latest addition to the Dortmund young-guns club.
Not that everything in the elite garden is blooming, however. Instances of hooliganism have become more numerous in the past couple of years, with cases of fans storming the pitch and missiles being aimed at players and assistant referees. There is also the fact that for a league that was once so closely matched – five different champions since the turn of the century – today’s Bundesliga does seem to look like a two-horse race between Dortmund and Bayern.
Top dogs for the past two years, Dortmund undoubtedly have the edge at the moment. They have beaten Bayern in each of their last five encounters, and in marked contrast to their arch-rivals they are unified, totally free of fear and psychologically at peace. The combination of back-to-back Bundesliga losses and the nightmarish Champions League Final defeat by Chelsea has left the usually imperious Bayern in a state of some panic. And in the haze of such disappointment it was not particularly surprising a palace revolution ensued over the summer, with the club’s general manager Christian Nerlinger unceremoniously dumped in favour of ex-German FA technical director Matthias Sammer, who coached Dortmund to the title in 2002.
Bayern’s hope is that Sammer’s passion, single-mindedness and never-quenched thirst for success will help drag them back to the highest step of the podium. But the move clearly has its risks. The word compromise does not exist in the Sammer lexicon and there is every chance of him coming into conflict with certain superstars on the books.
These are not especially great times for the traditional German powerhouses. Last season, Cologne, Hertha Berlin and Kaiserslautern all went through the relegation trapdoor in a blaze of ignominy, and if they are not careful Hamburg and even Werder Bremen could find themselves on the same path. Much better, it seems, to be a well-run provincial club on a budget. Take a bow Mainz, Freiburg, Augsburg and top-flight rookies Greuther Furth.