Germans are meticulous. We build up things from scratch. Cars. Power plants. National teams. World Cup victories. Leagues. “Bundesliga” is a trademark, committed to solid quality and minimal antics. Corruption is forbidden in the land of Kant, Bach, Beethoven and Merkel.
Football in Germany is a lot like bratwurst and sauerkraut. They’re very tasty in a stadium but not what you would expect in a five-star restaurant. They might dress it up: saucisse sauté on brassica acidita to create an effect, but the image of solid, down-to-earth and unpretentious will stick to most Bundesliga-clubs.
The line between bratwurst and saucisse sautè in Bundesliga is drawn between the Big Bs – Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – and the rest of the league.
Bayern Munich have dominated the league for longer than their current players have been alive. They’ve won the league 25 times, have 17 cup wins to their name and while they haven’t won the Champions League in two consecutive years – YET! – they did accomplish that feat with its predecessor, the European Cup. Bayern are the Rekordmeister – record champion – and, with four straight league titles are better than ever. Each Bundesliga season starts with the question: can another club challenge Bayern?
For the past 20 years, Borussia Dortmund have been viewed as the most likely candidate. Less shiny, less potent, less star-studded, BVB are seen as the Robin Hood in this tale. Their transformation into a stock corporation in 1999 didn’t harm their reputation as an underdog. To this day, Bayern’s revenues are almost double those of BVB.
Dortmund might be seen as an underdog, but they’re still one of the seemingly inaccessible Two Towers of Power in German football. Yet Bayern and Dortmund represent two very different perspectives on football. On the one hand, the high-lustre club whose motto, Mia san mia (“We are who we are“ in Bavarian dialect) is now a synonym for leisured arrogance all over Football-Germany, and has even encroached upon New York City, with an official embassy on Lexington Avenue. On the other hand, we have the down-to-earth club from the industrial region of Ruhrgebiet, where the oldest fans still remember their fathers coming to games with sooty faces from the coal mines. Neither cliché is entirely correct, but both bear traces of the truth.
Before the 2015-16 season even began, Robin Hood had been thrown off his horse. 2014-15 was a nightmare for BVB, who were dead last in January, but came back to finish 7th and scrape into the Europa League, a triumph supporters had hardly dared hope for. Jürgen Klopp, the heart and soul of the club since 2008, left for Liverpool, but under new coach Thomas Tuchel the men in black and yellow re-embraced their role as “Bayern-chasers“ as if the season before had never happened. From the first round, the two clubs occupied first and second place. Bayern moved into first on September 22, the sixth matchday of the season, and remained there ever since, never moved by the legions of German football fans, among whom very few have an unbiased stance, who kept holding out hope the giants would be toppled.
But outside of Germany, people sometimes forget – 16 other teams take part in the Bundesliga. And while they’ve scarcely challenged the Two Towers in the last 20 years, certain clubs are following a model which may gradually transform the league. The question is, after 52 years of considerably little change, will this transformation turn German football into something totally unrecognisable?
The breach between tradition and transformation is very much alive and kicking in and around German stadia. Traditional clubs are those founded in the first half of the 20th century and run by their members for decades, who still rely heavily on names and black-and-white Pictures, engraved on bronze medals and displayed in show cases. These are clubs, not stock corporations. Schalke 04, Dortmund’s local rival, are such a club. Together with FSV Mainz 05, VfB Stuttgart and SC Freiburg (currently in the 2nd division, but will play in 1. League next season), S04 are one of the few clubs still organized as a registered society. 1. FC Köln, promoted back to first league in 2014, and Hamburger SV, battling relegation for the third consecutive year, take different forms, but are still considered traditional clubs.
Schalke, who fell 6-3 on aggregate to Real Madrid in last season’s Champions league and were knocked out of the Europa League after a 3-0 home loss to Shakhtar Donetsk this season, totally fail to live up to their supporters’ international expectations (and domestic, too — they’re unlikely to make the Champions League next season). Hamburg barely escaped relegation last year and are flirting with it again this season. Köln, sitting 8th, can at least look forward to a fourth season of top-flight football. Tradition wears thin in Bundesliga.
Then there are the transformational clubs, who rely heavily on sponsors. TSG Hoffenheim are the mother of all upstarts; FC Ingolstadt, Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg are additional examples. All have financiers able to pull them out of any monetary crisis they might get themselves into on sportive grounds. Ingolstadt, Wolfsburg, and Leverkusen are sponsored by industrial enterprises – Audi, Volkswagen and Bayer respectively while Hoffenheim is the pet project of an individual, SAP founder Dietmar Hopp. For the fans this makes little difference. All these clubs dangle from the strings of non-football commercial enterprises who use the football for their ends, e.g. selling products. Traditionally minded fans, opposed to this so-called “modern football,” hate them to a point of neglecting all civilised demeanour.
Still, the future seems to be theirs. Despite it being their first season in the Bundesliga, FC Ingolstadt sit 9th, an amazing result for a newly promoted club. Leverkusen, disappointingly, didn’t make it past the group stage this year, but will play in the Champions League again next season. VfL Wolfsburg failed to qualify for European play, but for now nothing indicates that VW’s answer to a disappointing season will be anything but money. These clubs’ monetary dominance may be a long way from equaling success in the Champions League, but the way itself isn’t questioned.
However, an even more manufactured team is set to join the top division. Red Bull’s flimsily disguised protégé Rasenball (Lawn Ball) Leipzig is heading for promotion, leaving some of the most traditional clubs in Germany like 1. FC Nürnberg and 1. FC Kaiserslautern behind in the top flights of 2nd league.
RB Leipzig, founded in 2009 by Austrian company Red Bull GmbH and factually controlled by the enterprise, are an artificial construct. The club, with a logo nearly identical to the company’s, was made to order as a team that would represent ailing East German football in the top tiers. However, they have raised controversy among fans over the blatant emulsifying of football and commerce. The effort to sell RB as short for “RasenBall” insulted supporters’ ability to differentiate. In reality RB Leipzig is Red Bull, and with this violation of the 50+1 rule — German Football League regulations state that a financier can only hold, at most, 49% of a club’s voting rights– the so-called “Brause Club” (lemonade club) fully represents the dreaded model of a football club commercialized to the maximum.
Tradition seems to be losing, but even commercialized clubs refuse to abandon it. If you ask the clubs’ representatives they all dig up a tradition of some sort. Even VfL Wolfsburg’s director Wolfgang Hotze claims his club has tradition: “No club has more tradition. The club and the city were founded at the same time, 1945 …” If this sounds cynical, it is. Tradition sells.
But it doesn’t pay. Under the blanket of crests and colours all Bundesliga clubs squint at the Big Spenders and try to emulate them. FSV Mainz 05, known as the ”Karnevalsverein“ (Carnival Club) in reference to the city’s worldwide popular carnival, sealed a deal with Infront Sports & Media last year, a Swiss marketing company led by one Philippe Blatter, nephew of Sepp. The club from Rhineland-Palatia, promoted in 2009 under current Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel, now sits on top of VfL Wolfsburg and Schalke 04 and will play European football next season.
The strife is not just between tradition and transformation but between different principles. A handful of Mainz, Schalke, Köln or Hamburg supporters would want their club to be relegated rather than sponsored by whoever has the money and the will to do so. But in general, the struggling midfield of German Bundesliga reflects a change in a general life view.
Football clubs used to be one of the last spaces of stability for people thrown into a maelstrom of constant change. Not only do things not last as long as they used to – marriages, employments, technical devices – they are not MEANT to last as long. Change is now considered a virtue. Hold on to things for too long – ideas, wives, mobile phones – and they become of lesser use to you with each passing day. Don’t expect last year’s phone to handle this year’s websites without a daily update. Don’t expect last century’s clubs to ride the tide of this century’s competitions. Change equals progress.
The clubs have to expand. All of them. And expansion means death…er, debt. Clubs who fail to regularly qualify for international competitions, or who are unable to meet expectations, risk high debts. . HSV’s struggles have left them €90 million in debt, while Schalke’s debt is at €230 million.. Hertha BSC Berlin are debt-free, but have only been back in the top flight for a couple years. The longer it takes a club to reap its share from TV rights, and to qualify for European prize money, the more precarious its financial situation may become
Business-sponsored clubs like Wolfsburg and Leverkusen at least steer clear of the debt problem, can concentrate on sports and are able to buy players – to their sporting benefit – with few if any financial limits.
Smaller clubs with neither a Big Spending Daddy nor any chance to wade into the deep money zone in the near future are living hand to mouth. After an outstanding season players leave for what are, in Germany ( at least among the lower 16 clubs), ridiculous sums. A move like Shinji Okazaki, from Mainz to Leicester City for an alleged 11 million, can enable a club to spend more on new players, pay off a new stadium, or pay down or off their debts.
It’s a vicious circle. Without spending, a club has no access to the Champions League and its big money. HSV serves as a warning: sportive failure and financial disaster urge each other on.
Meanwhile, Bayern and Dortmund have reached a level of spending and earning where the balance is balanced, more or less (pun intended). To quote dramatist Bertolt Brecht, “What’s the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” The Two Towers of Bundesliga are akin to the skyscrapers of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt/Main. What’s harassing the pedestrians below doesn’t touch those high above.
The display of the German Bundesliga in the final lap of the season with Bayern and Dortmund leading the league, the remaining 16 teams trailing in their wake, and seven teams still in danger of relegation, relates to the demands of modern football: suspense is guaranteed.
It’s not necessarily the neck-and-neck race of Bayern and BVB to the championship that provides the most excitement. The competition for Europe increases the drama, but it is the tight relegation battle that provides the most suspense. The 2015-16 Bundesliga season, with traditional clubs fighting for their lives, considerably added to this suspense.
The advocates of “modern football” might be advised to not work too hard for their victory. The variety of club models and perspectives on football just might add the necessary spice to the menu of “bratwurst and sauerkraut” in German football.