Germany’s top division is the league of the moment, hailed as an emerging power by the great and the good of the European game. While others lose themselves to the hype, Scott Jenkins takes a step back to reassess the recent plaudits and ask what took everyone so long?
Before we start on this journey, I want you to cast your minds back to a time before Gareth Bale won both the Player Of The Year and the Young Player Of The Year awards. A time before QPR and Reading had been relegated and long before Sky Sports News had reached fever point over Arsenal’s prospective guard of honour (did anyone other than them actually care?). Instead I want you to return to last Thursday…
It’s the morning after the nights before. Those nights in question are of course Tuesday 23rd April where Bayern Munich (München to any German readers) destroyed Barcelona 4-0 and Wednesday 24th April when we all witnessed Borussia Dortmund’s 4-1 triumph over Real Madrid. Two Champions League Semi Final first legs, one aggregate score reading “Germany 8-1 Spain” and football’s biggest superstars left dejected, facing their greatest adversity of the season at its worst possible time.
Cataluña based newspaper Sport are still focusing on an injustice with the referee’s poor performance affecting, in truth only the winning margin for Bayern, citing Thomas Muller’s body check on Jordi Alba as its principle argument. They cry out for another Messi miracle to keep their Champions League dream alive. Meanwhile Madrid’s Marca does not complain of an injustice for once, instead it announces that “Operation 3-0” is the plan to save La Decima. The tenth European Cup is all they crave and while a Copa Del Rey final is on the horizon, in reality it’s all they want after giving up on La Liga months ago too.
In England, The Daily Mirror announces that German football is now hailed as the best in Europe, coupled with headlines of “Bay-Bay Barca” and “Lewandowski goes fourth to the Champions League Final” as if this was the first sighting of their arrival. That 24 hour sports news channel is declaring Spanish club football to be facing the end of its European domination, conveniently forgetting Real Madrid’s recent record. They repeat Jamie Redknapp’s praise on a “top, top player” who he then proceeds to mispronounce the name of on a never ending loop. ShoutSport (I mean, TalkSport) too prophesise over the demise of an era and to drum home the point further they proceed to call as many former player’s as possible to hear them stumble through presenter-led interviews with more football clichés bounced around than the away goalkeeper on a trip to the Britannia Stadium.
And herein lies the problem. Over the coming weeks in the inevitable build up to the Champions League Final, one that looks ever increasingly likely to become an all-German affair you will be subjected to countless stories of the Bundesliga’s newfound status as a rival to the almighty Premier League. The truth is that these publications will have missed the mark by as much as 10 years.
Off the field during the past decade, the English Premier League has brought in and made worldwide superstars of Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba and achieved European success with Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. These factors in turn have helped drive the much lauded marketing strategy surrounding television rights with the latest commercial deal now surpassing £4bn.
However those triumphs also overshadowed the financial instability of clubs and their ownership, where most have now been traded or sold. The repercussions of some fiscal mismanagement during this period have seen former stalwarts like Leeds United, Nottingham Forrest and Sheffield Wednesday drop multiple divisions to recover. While Portsmouth have entered administration repeatedly as their struggle to just survive continues, a battle that at times has seen more danger than Apollo Creed squaring off in an exhibition match against Ivan Drago.
At the turn of the millennium however the Bundesliga was learning from mistakes made by their English counterparts and closer to home, Borussia Dortmund after they poorly spent fortunes (Marcio Amoroso) on playing assets as they searched for another Champions League that nearly led to their financial ruin. This started the restructuring of its two major organisations, the Deutsche Fussball Liga (German Football League; DFL) and the Deutscher Fussball Bund (German Football Federation; DFB).
As part of the Bundesliga licensing agreement, every club must now be judged to “stay fit” financially based over a range of competences. A measure that has added pertinence when considering that each team, with the notable exceptions of Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, must be owned majority owned by their fans – 50 percent plus one share scheme. The same fans that pay far less to watch games than any of their European equals at a league with the highest average attendance rates of the continent.
On the pitch, in England it has taken over ten years since initial planning developments to build St George’s Park, a centre for all coaching and development work led by the FA and essentially our answer to France’s Clairefontaine establishment twenty years later. Away from this though there are still no common goals shared between Premier League clubs and the national team in terms of collective approach on how to play the game and training techniques. While Italy and Spain have shared similar problems they have also recently had success from golden generations playing together domestically to gel a style that could later be adopted for success internationally – Spain’s tiki-taka generation took over the mantle from Italy’s defensive minded World Cup success in 2006.
In contrast, the Bundesliga adopted a more unified strategy with the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach of the national team ahead of the 2006 FIFA World Cup based in Germany. Two years before the event Klinsmann and his assistant Joachim Low sought to further enhance the reforms and define a national standard and so met with the DFL, DFB and all Bundesliga clubs to outline a shared vision for all to adopt and buy into. The outcome was that each club must have a youth development centre as an obligatory prerequisite and for the national team to play a fast paced, attacking style that was seen to be proactive. As a means to meeting these requirements, fitness tests were conducted every 3 months across all Bundesliga teams. The reach of this is still being felt today and has continued to inspire this current generation to great performances at recent European Championships and World Cups.
With this season’s domestic campaigns drawing to a close and the titles having now been decided across England, Germany, Italy and Spain, the previous six seasons provide scope for interesting analysis. Spain has seen only two champions in that period, Barcelona and Real Madrid. England and Italy have shared the title out amongst three clubs, Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea on these shores with Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan claiming Serie A. It is the Bundesliga however that has seen the greatest variance in the number of champions with four. Bayern Munich have won the league three times, Borussia Dortmund twice and Wolfsburg and Stuttgart each collecting the title once. And if the media and bookmaker’s predictions are correct, Bayern Munich are set to compete in their third Champions League final in just four years too.
Reviewing the manner of recent domestic triumphs in greater depth shows how under Jurgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund’s surge to recent back-to-back Bundesliga (2011 and 2012) titles were born from the shared ethos with the national team. It also demonstrated how the increased fitness testing from an educated and hungry young group of spirited hopefuls allowed the man they call ‘Kloppo’ to engineer an aggressive high pressing tactic to dominate games en route to their successes. This tactic of course has since been honed further by the current holders of the Bundesliga title, Juup Heynckes’ mercilessly efficient Bayern Munich.
And so in Germany on this day after those two semi-finals, Bild and Spiegel Online state that “Germany isn’t Spain yet” as they know there is still work to be done for the transition to be completely successful. But the crux lies with that final word, “yet”. While of course there are celebratory headlines amid the sheer euphoria of these results, there is also a concerted approach to not be brass with it. Instead it is a very calm, considered and respectful view but the notable quality that overrides it all is one full of conviction. It is the German way. The path has been laid and the road to glory is straight ahead. As this stage of the Champions League draws to a close, we’ll know for certain if that road leads to Wembley.
Just don’t call it a comeback, the Bundesliga has been here for years.