Love – An Ode to the Bundesliga

I happily blame Die Mannschaft.

I’ve never been to Germany. I don’t know German. I wasn’t born on a German base. I don’t even have a German last name. (Scots-Irish!) Yet I love the Bundesliga, my favorite domestic league in the world.

However, in the beginning I almost gave up on the Bundesliga during early fall 2010 (I was a newly declared full-time soccer fan after the 2010 World Cup). The Bundesliga was too other. The names. The cities. No context for the heroes, villains, narrative arcs, Derbies, the whole spirit of the thing. All too other.

Without watching a single match, in the summer of 2010 I chose the Bundesliga as my European domestic league to follow. The EPL seemed too cliché. La Liga too much of an indulgent two-horse race, albeit a seductive one after the World Cup! Ligue 1 wasn’t on ESPN3. And something about Italy’s skunky World Cup performance left a wrong taste in my mouth for Serie A.

Yet the Bundesliga was not just the last horse standing in my process. Die Mannschaft hooked me in the World Cup. Like other Americans, I fell in love with them from the Australia game onward.Germany scored goals, ran energetically, and was seemingly ethnically diverse. And so awesomely young! During Germany’s matches, I heard about the fabled German youth system with its gold deposits of talent. So why not the Bundesliga?

I even read Sports Illustrated’s 2010-2011 season preview, but I was quickly intimidated by the foreignness of the Germanic names – of clubs and players. I knew names of some German cities by playing following competitive chess (for example, Dortmund and Mainz have hosted major annual chess tournaments; in fact, I first learned the word bundesliga through the German domestic chess league!), but was clueless about cities like Leverkusen, Gelsenkirchen, Bremen, Freiburg, or Hoffenheim. I knew nothing of the league’s context, its narratives, its players. Just that FC Hollywood won a lot and yet took turns trading league championships with a sort of futbol one-hit wonders.

The lack of context put too much distance between me and the weekly quota of two Bundesliga matches on ESPN3. I gave up on any game not featuring FC Hollywood with its array of World Cup familiar names: Müller, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Ribéry, Robben, and Kroos. Watching Bayern provided a toehold of familiarity. However, I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for them. Too big, too bad, too much money. Too evil empire. (I know, I know this piece of hypocrisy coming from a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan!)

My salvation became the televised Bundesliga crowds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund)

The pulsing yellow sea in Signal Iduna Park. The little-machine-that-could roar in Mainz. The choreographed singing and chanting for Bayern. By the winter break, I was already declaring German futbol crowds, especially Dortmund’s, as the world’s greatest fandom communities.

kept watching because of the crowds.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDzrUnC8ujU]

 

(The Dortmund crowd singing and jumping. My brother-in-law claims from first hand experience in Berlin that nothing is more intimidating than a bunch of drunk German Bundesliga fans throatily singing.)

The crowds hooked me to the match action on the field; their excitement and indefatigable noise made me care about the players on the pitch.

Next, I began picking up context from the ESPN3 commentators. Alan Fountain – of PBS fame – is especially good in feeding the audience footy tidbits (“agricultural tackles”), German culture (Cologne’s carnival), geography, and club history. Since I’ve never visited Germany, or Europe, Fountain gave me the story to notice. Then, Phil Bonney’s rugged English accent and pregnant long pauses shape each game into a narrative. I could live in a world with clones of Fountain and Bonney doing all commentary for all sports.

Early winter 2011, I posed myself a thought problem: would I still be a Bundesliga fan without the audio feed?

I feared the answer.

If I had a “coming to Jesus” conversion moment, it was while watching a halting stream of, I think I’m remembering correctly, Mainz’s 3-2 home win over FC Hollywood. In hindsight, this game was a metonym for my Bundesliga love; it contained all the variables:

  • The thundering crowd.
  • The context-providing commentary.
  • Thriving young talent (from this game, former Mainz star Andre Schürrle became the first non-Bayern name I could remember).
  • The irony of success.
  • Lots of running on the field.

The last three bullets deserve some exposition. A (helpful) cliche is that the Bundesliga is a league of parity, like the NFL. Yes, FC Hollywood is a world-conquering power, but shares the league title with a rotation of other teams. Dortmund, however, is currently throwing a monkey wrench in this scheme. But still, I don’t think you’ll find any fans who’ll deny that the league contains parity.

So if you despise the constant two-horse race between the titans in La Liga, or the “big four” type hegemony of the EPL, jump ship. Embrace the Bundesliga’s warm bosom of upward mobility. Come on, the parity is so American. So NFL. Yet with the twist that the Cowboys, Steelers, and ‘Niners are all rolled into one team, one legacy (i.e. Bayern Munich’s function in the league, so yeah, it’s a tad European, but what were you expecting?).

Then you have all the young starlets: Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Mats Hummels, the Bender boys, Manuel Neuer, Tony Kroos, Thomas Müller, Philip Lahm, Andre Schürrle, etc. Plus all the young talent raided by the sirens of big club futbol inEurope (i.e. in debt and fueled by petro-dollars): Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Papiss Cissé, and last season’s darling, Nuri Sahin.

Europe, be jealous. Germany is unmatched in talent development right now.

The abundance of talent creates a fascinating irony for Bundesliga fans. These young starlets come with added drama, narrative conflict, and meaningful tragedy: they are so so so transient as Bundesliga starlets. The sirens of big club futbol (Real Madrid, you are currently enemy number 1) always plunder the talent, like so many Vikings at the gates. For fans, there’s an irony here: you almost fear success, because success means your stars will become plunder for the sirens.

The irony of success creates a dilemma: how does your Bundesliga team keep succeeding (especially if it starts qualifying for the UEFA Champion’s League or Europa League) through the plundering process?

In other words, how does your club avoid becoming one of these?

This dilemma is a scary, yet somehow delightful puzzle successful German clubs must solve. Dortmund is currently the exemplar with its sustained success this season. In a sense, Bundesliga fans are like college basketball fans. And we need our John Caliparis, as management, to deal with the constant turnover of talent.

The irony of Bundesliga success is exhilarating. It introduces an element of classical tragedy into the league: the tragic fall. Your team’s waxy-Icarus wings melt after a magical run to the bright light of Europe’s top tiers (e.g. Wolfsburg ’09).

(Wolfsburg, cira 2010; or FSV Mainz 05 circa 2012. Carlo Saraceni’s The Fall of Icarus, after 1616)

I think we witness human greatness – in the classical sense – through the irony of success, manifested in the surprising runs of upstarts one year, then their tragic falls the next. Put simply: year one magic, year two plundering. The year after the magic is the testing moment; basically, we see humans responding to adversity. Great stuff for stories. What is your team’s meddle after the sirens plunder your starlets?

The irony of Bundesliga success draws more emotions out of me than other leagues. Emotions leak out when fortunes are reversed, or fortunes formed out of nothing. That is, when the narrative arc of a season moves up and down, my emotions get involved to keep up. It’s cathartic stuff.

It’s also exciting stuff – so much so that we often complain about the lack of competent defending across the league. We get our share of dull draws dull with the usual suspect teams. We get possession futbol, attacking, vintage counter-attacking futbol, and aggressive-pressing futbol. I think what I’m trying to say is that the Bundesliga contains a diverse array of play, perhaps more than other major league in the world. The Bundesliga is the buffet spread of the futbol world.

Throw out your 90s stereotypes of German futbol. Void them. Cliché German play is a ghost of history right now. Wanna see the future? Watch the Bundesliga.

I’m writing this post, because I have been pleasantly puzzled about my fandom for something I really shouldn’t care about so much, yet do. I’m trying to plumb the meaning of my experience of Bundesliga fandom. Why do I care?

This post is my temporary answer to the question.

Fandom in a vacuum is a strange thing. By vacuum, I mean moments when you haven’t made any allegiances yet, when all options are open, and when I must arbitrarily pick criteria leading to commitments; that is, me during the summer of 2010, amid a futbol fandom shopping spree for new teams and new leagues.

My problem, I realize, is mostly an American problem (perhaps  Europeans experience a fandom-in-a-vacuum moment when picking an NBA team or NFL team). There’s almost an entire genre of American sportswriting in which authors – like consumers trying to pick the right mobile device, the right car, or the right bathroom tile – lay out criteria, compare choices, then declare allegiance to an EPL club. I’ve done the shopping, too (Tottenham Hotspur, if you’re wondering!). I know I’m not alone when I muse that my favorite moment of the hilarious Men in Blazers podcast is the tongue-in-cheek “I Testify” segments in which, each week, a new American EPL fan explains and declares his/her allegiance to a new team.

American fans are in a weird position: we crave the communal meanings and deeply historical narratives that the Europe clubs are packaged with, given that our beloved domestic MLS teams (Go Sounders FC!) are so young. Yet we can’t get around the distinctly American experience of “shopping” for our team, then trying to embrace something we are usually totally unconnected to, except for our fandom-induced emotions. Thus, my Bundesliga fandom sometimes can feel so vicarious or inauthentic.

Yet I care. I know the criticism of my fandom-in-a-vacuum is premised by the notion of geographic-based fandom. Obviously, my Bundesliga fandom contradicts this notion. It is not geography-based. Nor do I have cultural bonds, which necessarily tie me to Germany beyond some genealogy, like many Americans.

What remains? To get all philosophical, a love for the thing itself (I’m using this phrase in a loose philosophical sense.), rather than a love for a thing that is determined by being in a certain place (e.g. my love for all Seattle sports teams right now) or by cultural bonds (like my family’s Illinois roots and Chicago Bears fandom, yet even here the connection quickly becomes geographic at its heart!). That is, a love that unmediated through other bonds. After all, my Bundesliga fandom is simply a choice.

So, perhaps, I’ve earned the right to say something portentous. Here it goes: I can experience and enjoy the Bundesliga more purely than Germans! More humbly and truthfully put, I experience and enjoy the Bundesliga simply as something worthy of my attention. This post is basically my attempt to outline its worthiness: the crowds, the commentary, the irony of success, and the energetic play. I’m sure these reasons will evolve over time, as I more deeply absorb the narrative and German cultural context of the league. Meanwhile, my fandom abides.

Finally, my Bundesliga love sometimes feels as diffused as these details, any one of which alone can eternally justify anyone’s Bundesliga fandom:

  • Fiscal sanity.
  • Jürgen Klopp and his baseball caps (so secretly American!)
  • Kevin Großkreutz (thank you, Alan Fountain!)
  • Marcel Schmelzer‘s Steve Irwin hair + incongruously squat eyebrows.
  • Thomas Tuchel, Doestoevsky look-a-like.
  • Jogi Löw peering fashionably from the stands, like a dapper flaneur, scouting talent for Die Mannschaft.
  • Mats Hummels, Deity-in-training.
  • Mario Götze, frosty-tip phase.
  • FC Hollywood fans singing the opening bass line of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” after goals.
  • Arjen Robben, be-gloved, flapping about.
  • Michael Ballack’s Zoro mask.
  • Uli Hesse’s weekly gems.
  • Daniel Nyari’s art.
  • The Humba.
  • The Bundesliga Fanatic.

Tor!    

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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