For so long in England, Germany has been viewed as football’s greener grass. Alcohol in the stands, cheap tickets and full grounds of thronging, bouncing supporters creating fabulous atmospheres, all tied up in the bow of an enforced ownership structure that avoids fans being exploited. Hordes of Brits maraud for cheap, drunken weekends, returning to regale the sheer wonder of it all. It’s like Disney World for those head over heels in love with football. Die Mannschaft’s performances at major tournaments only make us bilious with envy.
The Bundesliga was renowned for its competition, too. Stuttgart’s title in 2007, Wolfsburg’s two years later and Borussia Dortmund’s back-to-back triumphs in 2011 and 2012 offered the sense that outsiders had a chance. Between 1996 and 2011, there were six different winners of the Bundesliga; the Premier League had just three.
Even below the title challengers, Germany typically put England to shame. In the last ten seasons, only six clubs (Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs) have finished in the Premier League’s top four. The Bundesliga’s total is 11: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Werder Bremen, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Schalke, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, Hertha Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover.
However, despite recent fawning (and I include myself as guilty of that), there is trouble brewing in Germany’s stadiums. The Bundesliga remains eminently watchable, but it is far from melodramatic to suggest that the league faces crucial questions regarding its future.
Spoiler alert: Bayern Munich will win the title this season, available at odds as short as 1/20. They won it last year. And the year before. And the year before that. They’ll probably win it next season too. There was talk after Wolfsburg’s recent German Super Cup victory of a meaningful challenge, but the probable departure of Kevin de Bruyne should extinguish all remaining hope. Some bookmakers have the second favourites to be champions at 20/1 – that’s the same as fifth favourites Liverpool in England.
Scratch below the surface, and further cracks soon appear. The stereotype is that German clubs are extremely well-run, but supporters of Stuttgart and Schalke may disagree with that sentiment. Hamburg fans would probably laugh maniacally at the suggestion. The Bundesliga is far from immune to mismanagement.
The Bundesliga clubs’ performance in Europe is also on the wane, thinly veiled by the façade of Bayern’s recent success. Although all German clubs have qualified from te group stage in the last two years, only Bayern and Dortmund have reached the Champions League quarter-finals since 2012.
Meanwhile, the Europa League has been an unmitigated disaster. Of the 48 teams at the last-16 stage of the Europa League in the previous three seasons, only two (Wolfsburg and Stuttgart) were German – Wolfsburg lost 6-3 on aggregate to Internazionale in last season’s quarter-final, whilst Stuttgart were beaten 5-1 by Lazio in 2012/13’s last-16. Those totals are dwarfed by Spain (6), England (5) and Italy (10). It’s no exact science, but certainly hints at the lack of depth in the league.
It is impossible to overstate Bayern’s current dominance. They have won the title by a cumulative 54 points over the last three seasons, dropping nine of their 23 points last season when the title was already won. Since drawing with FC Mainz on April 14, 2012, Bayern have won 85 of their last 105 league matches. In the last three seasons, 24% of Bayern’s Bundesliga games have ended with them winning by four or more goals.
Again this summer Bayern have improved their squad, the arrivals of Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa putting them even further ahead of the competition. Pep Guardiola hardly needs the help.
Below Bayern, a very different picture emerges. Augsburg, who finished fifth last season, have spent £3.7m on players. Wolfsburg, currently second favourites for the league, are battling to keep hold of star asset De Bruyne. The eventual conclusion seems inevitable.
The headline statistic is this: Outside the Allianz Arena, only two players have arrived into Germany for more than £5m this summer. They are Thorgan Hazard (Monchengladbach) and Matija Nastasic (Schalke), both Premier League reserves and both already on loan last season. Leicester City have imported more big signings than 17 of the Bundesliga’s 18 clubs combined.
The reason for that is obvious. As I wrote on Wednesday, the Premier League’s new broadcasting deal provides top-flight clubs with vast swatches of transfer funds. Full pockets make happy shoppers, to repeat a line from that piece. Five Bundesliga players (Roberto Firmino, Shinji Okazaki, Kevin Wimmer, Joselu and Bastian Schweinsteiger) have moved to England at a cost of around £60m. In Germany, the talk is of players fleeing for ‘Die Insel’.
This is where things really getting sticky. In 2013/14, Cardiff City (who finished bottom of the Premier League) earned £74.9m from broadcasting revenue, more than double the total of Bayern Munich, who were champions of Germany. That chasm easily explains why players are leaving, rather than joining Bundesliga clubs.
The inevitable rumbles of discontent have begun in earnest. Last month Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rumenigge stated his desire to see clubs negotiate their own agreements, a replication of the Spanish model that assists Barcelona and Real Madrid so strongly.
“The Bundesliga – including the smaller clubs – would be better off with this model,” Rumenigge said. “If we were to market our own TV rights we could earn 200 million euros, four times as much as now.”
Bayern’s chief did mention larger clubs contributing into a solidarity fund in order to assist those on smaller deals, but his intention is unlikely to be entirely honourable. If Bayern are to continue to compete with Europe’s super clubs, change is needed. If that meant them winning the league season after season, it would be collateral damage. The Bundesliga’s reputation would be indelibly tarnished.
“We need an honest discussion in the league: Are we ready, looking at the new television contract, to take unpopular measures, if necessary, to be able to keep the best players in the world in the Bundesliga?” said the Bundesliga’s own CEO, Christian Seifert. That sounds like an impressively leading question.
Until now, supporters have rejected calls for greater television deals and their impacts, including ‘salami’ schedules where gameweeks are strung out over various kick-off times. “There will have to be compromises,” said Klaus Allofs, managing director of Wolfsburg. That normally refers to the fans, not clubs. For how long can the little guy hold out?
Next summer, German football’s latest broadcasting deal will be announced. You might already know who will win the league title this season, but it will be a fascinating nine months off the field in Germany; seminal even.
The Bundesliga exists as a wonderful example of football designed for the fans, but for how long? The winds of commercial change are ready to blow.