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German Football – The Good, the Bad and the Grafite



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Why do we love English football quite so much? We have a Premier League that is consistently contested by just four teams. We have the swanky stadiums but a fundamental lack of fans to fill them. In addition we have clubs being operated by billionaire owners who have little interest in football bar the money that can be squeezed out of it.

Throw in corporate allocations, squad rotation and pathetic managerial feuds and you have just a few reasons why many supporters are so desperate to see change. And it’s not just us English fans who have the hump would you believe!

It’s all well and good listing everything that is conceivably wrong with football in England and more specifically the Premier League, but how on earth do we go about improving it or should we just put up, shut up and settle for sweet FA? Well cast your eye to the east and you may find that the old enemy could possibly become the new friend to English football.

First things first, you don’t have to be an expert on German traditions to know all about Bayern Munich and the relentless grip that they have had on the Bundesliga since its inception in 1963. A quick history lesson will tell you that Bayern have won a total of 20 Bundlesliga titles out of a possible 45. Trailing rather miserably behind Bayern in second place? Borussia Mönchengladbach with five and they haven’t been crowned champions for some 32 years.

Soccerlens blogger and general Bundesliga enthusiast Henrik Hegedus once stated: ’Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans Bayern win.’ To summarise the last 40 odd years in German football, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Although as a package for supporters, could the German league really be the perfect blueprint for how to run a successful top-flight league that caters for the needs of its most important comodity, the fans? With low ticket prices, stading areas at matches and a national team that actually performs quite well on the international stage, you can see that there’s plenty of room for optimism. And although the Bundlesliga may have, by and large, been, well, Bayern large over the years, there’s even a half decent title race going on this season you know!

The Good

So what exactly makes German football such a spectacle for the fans? Well let’s start by explaining the 50+1 rule.  Sounds like something resembling an Ivan Zamorano shirt right, but basically the rule prevents foreign investors from owning more than a 50% stake in a Bundesliga club. In effect this stops Mr *insert appropriate billionaire moguls name here* from having total control over a club and their finances. Peace of mind for supporters at least you may think. Although as with everything, there are always loopholes and exceptions to the rule and in both Wolfsburg and Leverkusen, the Bundesliga has two clubs which are company owned.

On top of supporting a team that is financially secure, the average Bundesliga fan can also rest safe in the knowledge that their own bank balance won’t be affected by ridiculous ticket prices. The average price for a match ticket in Germany’s top-flight equates to only 19 Euros. Just to put things into perspective, Manchester United’s cheapest ticket costs £27 and the Old Trafford club are showing no signs of relent either.

The average attendance for a Bundesliga match in 2008 was 40,880 compared to 35,269 in the Premier League. Make of that stat what you will. The Hillsborough disaster of 1989 signalled the end of standing at top-flight English grounds while safe terraced standing areas in Germany continue to flourish ensuring that excitement levels and attendances are at a continuous high.

All in all, the whole experience on offer for a fan of the Bundesliga is certainly second to none and unrivalled by any other league in Europe at present. It is for that exact reason that even English fans are turning their back on the Premier League and converting to fully fledged followers of German football.

If we focus briefly on the international scene, you don’t need me to tell you that Germany have a seemingly innate ability to be there or there abouts in every major international competition. Yet surely it can’t just be coincidence that the Germans have managed to reach the final of Euro 2008 and finished runners up and third place respectively at the last two World Cup tournaments.

And although I’m not going to go rambling on about the amount of foreign players in the Premier League, the Bundesliga does appear to have found the ideal balance of foreign imports and home-grown players. Yes Bayern have Ribery (for now) and Toni, Hamburg have Petric and Wolfsburg possess the league’s leading scorer in Brazilian Grafite (scorer of the goal of the year) but on the whole the Bundesliga is hardly littered with players from abroad and I think it’s great to see. 

The entertainment on show in the Bundesliga is also certainly something to be admired. Bayern Munich may still possess that trait of being the team that everyone wants to beat but with six games remaining and five teams still in with more than a realistic shout of title glory, there’s certainly everything to play for. Surely it beats hearing about Rafa and Sir Alex rambling on every day atleast?

I can also quite confidently tell you that the Bundesliga averages just fewer than 3 goals per game with only La Liga out of the other top European leagues matching that statistic. You also might be interested to know that the Premier League trails well behind with a ratio of 2.5 goals per game, even with a certain Russian added to the equation. So if you’re after goals, a competitive title race and entertaining football that is value for money then why not look no further than the Bundesliga?

The Bad

With all the aforementioned feel good factors associated with German football, there are, like anything, inevitable down points. Ironically the 50+1 rule I touched on earlier has itself come under notable scrutiny despite the obvious positives to be taken from consistent black balance sheets. Steering away from debt and maintaining solvency is one thing but taking a club to the next level and competing on the European stage is clearly another kettle of fish.

At the end of the day, fans crave success at any level of football and in any country. Some expect more varied levels than others but it’s still quintessentially one of the main reasons why we follow the beautiful game. These days that cliché involving money and football is undoubtedly prevalent and although I hate to say it, unfortunately money can buy you success in this sport.

Surely it will only be a matter of a time before German supporters are desperate for their respective club to make an impression in the Champions League and that can only really be made possible with top dollar, thus triggering foreign ownership. 50+1 is holding firm for now, but for how long remains to be seen.

In another case of catch 22, look at the relative lack of foreign players plying their trade in Germany. It’s all well and good us English fans complaining about the sheer lack of young Englishmen making the grade in the Premier League but would we really happily sacrifice watching such mercurial talents as Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres to improve the state of youth football? Something along the lines of six plus five may prove to be the best option for English football in the long-run but having to sacrifice some of the world’s best players would certainly prove a seismic detriment to the Premier League as a spectacle.

Many more of the criticisms aimed at the Bundesliga are attributed to what can only be labelled the ‘old way’ of doing things. For instance German coaches have been criticised for their lack of experimentation with formations and training methods and with the amount of decision makers involved at a German club, the term ‘too many cooks’ certainly comes to mind.

When it’s put like this, Hoffenheim have proved to be something of a breath of fresh air. Ralf Rangnick and his side took the Bundesliga by storm with a willingness to buck the trend and try something new and unexpected. It was rather refreshing to see that Rangnick dared to challenge the stereotypes by putting faith in younger players (the average age of the Hoffenheim squad is just 23), by going away from home and playing three up-front and even by introducing fencing and boxing into training regimes. Hoffenheim’s fairytale assault on the Bundesliga title may be over for this season but the once little-known fifth division club have certainly ruffled a few feathers.

So with talk of six plus five and Premier League II being bandied around the corridors of the FA at present, I ask could the model for the German Bundesliga really be a viable way forward? With high attendances, safe standing areas, beer on tap and top quality football to boot, the experience for the fan in Germany is undoubtedly up there with the very best in Europe.

Although with the need to keep improving and with the financial aspects of football being such a necessity for success, is it fair to say that the Bundesliga will eventually end up a carbon copy of the Premier League, replicating everything we detest so much about our so called ‘greatest league in the world’?

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