How German football became the best in Europe

The Bundesliga has gone back to basics.

New Statesman
Bayern Munich celebrate their recent victory in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images.

On 25 May Wembley will mark the 150th anniversary year of the Football Association by hosting a Champions League final between two German sides, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, which seems a neat summation of how football history has gone since 1863.

The Bundesliga has become, arguably, the pre-eminent league in Europe (although it still trails Spain in the Uefa coefficient table). As such, Germany is reaping a harvest planted 14 years ago. To outsiders, German football looked as strong as ever. Dortmund had won the Champions League in 1997 and Bayern were within seconds of winning in 1999. Germany had won Euro 96, played in England, with a team bolstered by players from the east who, it had been widely predicted, would make a united Germany unbeatable. But beneath the surface there were concerns, and the German authorities had the wherewithal not only to recognise them but to do something about them.

After a lucrative television deal had been agreed in 1992, newly rich clubs started looking abroad for transfers. Some of the players they brought in were top-class but many were signed just because they were cheaper than domestic players, whose prices had become inflated, while others offered little beyond an off-the-shelf exoticism. Over the five years that followed, the proportion of foreign players in the Bundesliga doubled, rising from 17 per cent to 34 per cent. That inevitably had an impact on the development of German players and the national manager, Berti Vogts, took the unprecedented step of fast-tracking the South African-born forward Sean Dundee for German citizenship, which he secured in 1997. Injury stopped him from ever playing for Germany, but a year later Paulo Rink, a Brazilian with German grandparents, did.

That hinted at desperation, a sense enhan - ced by poor performances at the 1998 World Cup (a limp quarter-final exit to Croatia) and Euro 2000 (when they were so bad that they became the first German team in 34 years to lose a competitive match to England). Something had to be done and in May 1999 it was. Franz Beckenbauer, a vice-president of the German football federation (DFB), Erich Ribbeck, who had succeeded Vogts as national coach, and the DFB’s director of youth development, Dietrich Weise, outlined a scheme to ensure the development of young German players. All clubs in the top two divisions in Germany were required to build academies, and 121 national centres were established to help ten-to-17-year-olds with technical practice.

That was part of it, but German football has also benefited from two other factors over which the DFB had no control. As the centres were established, the citizenship laws were relaxed, and as a result a number of top-class German-qualified players from immigrant backgrounds have emerged, perhaps most notably Mesut Özil, now at Real Madrid.

The economy helped as well by falling and rising at precisely the right time. By 2002, 60 per cent of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign. But then the Kirch TV conglomerate, which had underwritten the Nineties boom, collapsed. Facing ruin, most of the clubs sold off their expensive foreign stars and invested in cheaper local youth. The pioneers were VfB Stuttgart, who finished second in the Bundesliga in 2002-2003 with a team that included the young talents of Timo Hildebrand, Andreas Hinkel and Kevin Kurányi. This season, only 47 per cent of players in the Bundesliga are not qualified for Germany.

Now, with Germany’s economy at least stronger than most, if not quite booming, the top German clubs are able to hold on to talent for longer and to be more selective about buying foreign talent. Bayern took in £69m in TV revenue last season – a relatively modest figure compared to the £168m that Real Madrid brought in (Chelsea were the leading English club, earning £118m, the result of their run to the Champions League final) – but their commercial revenue, boosted by deals with Deutsche Telekom, Lufthansa, Adidas, the Paulaner brewery, Audi, Coca- Cola, Samsung, Siemens, Burger King, Continental and Sheraton, outstrips everyone else’s, totalling £163m.

There are further reasons, off the pitch, for English fans to look on the German model with envy. For one thing, provision of standing terraces at league matches helps keep ticket prices low: for instance, the average cost of a ticket at Bayern, the sixth most expensive club, is £31.25. Contrast that with Arsenal, the most expensive club in England, where prices for List A games (the most attractive ones) range from £62 to £126. And, for another, there is the “50+1” rule, which stipulates that the members of a club must own a minimum of 51 per cent of its shares, preventing the sort of buyout by foreign owners so common in the Premier League.

There is just one caveat before we hail a new age of German supremacy and it is the sense that, although Bayern and Dortmund have certainly benefited from the youth programme, economic factors have been far more important in establishing them among the Champions League elite. Bayern have agreed the signing of the brilliant 20-year-old forward Mario Götze from Dortmund (for £31.5m) and they may also end up buying the Polish forward Robert Lewandowski, who scored all four goals for Dortmund in the first leg of their semi-final first-leg win over Real Madrid in April.

Dortmund have achieved something extraordinary in recovering from near bankruptcy in 2005 (aided by a loan from Bayern) to win the Bundesliga in each of the past two seasons, but their wage bill is slightly less than half that of Bayern’s. It is hard to believe they can continue to fight that inequality – and if they don’t, then what European football has witnessed this season is less the rise of the Bundesliga than the rise of Bayern Munich. Even if Dortmund do somehow manage to cope with selling their best player each season, there are concerns in Germany that the Bundesliga faces a “Spanish problem” – a distribution of wealth so unequal that two sides inevitably dominate, not just winning the league but crushing their opponents every week.

It is one of the ironies of the capitulation of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the semi-finals that their domestic dominance may have counted against them, rendering both sides so unused to playing teams of roughly equal stature that when called on to fight they found that they had forgotten how to do so. Yet this is a problem across Europe: Manchester United cantered to the Premier League title, Paris Saint-Germain are cruising away in France and Juventus were untroubled in Italy.

The great worry is that the economics of the game are such that the cycle of one country dominating and then another has been replaced by the emergence of super-clubs that are outgrowing their domestic leagues.