The Tumultuous Origins of the Bundesliga

Like a bubbling cauldron of lava or the devastating early tectonic forces that shaped the planet, the Bundesliga too underwent its own entropic origins.  At times it even looked as though it would never come to fruition. As the Bundesliga approaches its 50th anniversary this upcoming season, it will still be a young cub compared to the English, Italian or Spanish leagues for example but it is nevertheless a great milestone considering its chaotic origins.

The establishment of a unified national league in 1962 heralded the era of widespread professionalism for the first time in German football and did away with the fragmented regional league system, paving the way for the modern era and German football’s golden age the following decade.  We take a look back at those formative years in celebration of how far the league has come and to pay tribute to the great efforts undergone to make it happen.


Unlike other leagues, the Bundesliga, and German football as a whole, had a precarious relationship with professionalism and nationalism going back to the beginnings of the game there in the 19th century, which made it the formation of a professional nationwide league so troublesome and also why it was delayed for such a long time.  You might have noticed by now that things were a bit different in Germany than they were elsewhere.  Sure enough, football came to Germany viewed as an intrusive and disruptive force and its’ professionalization was seen with quite a bit of antagonism. That distrust of professionalism was one of the big issues at the core of the opposition to a unified league.

The other was a fear of losing their best players to more financially competitive teams abroad once Germany were starting to do well and develop quality players.  The Walter (Fritz and Ottmar) brothers received offers from Spain in the 1950’s while the other World Cup hero Helmut Rahn got an offer from Argentina. Later Uwe Seeler was offered a staggering 750,000 DM to join Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan.  In all these cases, the players declined but that was because national team coach Sepp Herberger went to great lengths to make sure they were paid well in their own country, even going as far as getting Uwe Seeler a job as representative of adidas. That was becoming increasingly difficult though and several players ended up leaving Germany for “greener” pastures.  Rahn, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Horst Szymaniak, Helmut Haller and Erwin Waldner all went abroad in the following years.   To Herberger one thing became increasingly obvious; if Germany wanted to hold on their best talent and continue to have a strong national team, they needed a professional nationwide league.

Now, Herberger himself was not a great proponent of professionalism but he knew that unless the country moved with the times the national team would suffer and he wanted to keep his precious players happy.  Herberger was supportive of a unified league even after their triumph at the 1954 World Cup and became even more vocal after the 1958 World Cup. It was to no avail though. Too many remained hostile to the idea and argued that there was no need for professionalism when the national team was consistently ranked amongst the best in the world.

That’s not to say that idea of a unified national league was just dreamt up in the 1950’s.  Already in 1932 secret meetings were held discussing the idea of forming a German version of a unified league similar to the English model but too many people within the federation and club officials throughout the country remained staunchly opposed to it.  Professionalism was still very much taboo back then.

Luckily Herberger wasn’t alone. Over the years DFB official Hermann Neuberger and Köln chairman Franz Kremer emerged as the idea’s biggest proponents and eventually the most significant figures in making it happen.  Kremer campaigned for a unified national league as early as 1949 when he shopped the idea around to different club officials around the country. He made little progress back then though and was deemed a “rebel” for his troubles.  Very much a man ahead of his time, Kremer was determined to make it happen though and kept bringing up the issue at every annual DFB meeting.

In 1958 Kremer went on the offensive again only to be struck down by DFB officials as delegations from the various regional FAs’ refused to come together on the idea.  Even the advice of one of their own, Herberger, did little to convince its detractors.  He, more than anyone, knew what the real implications of falling behind the other leagues would mean for German football.  “We need a strong unified league to compete internationally”, Herberger said.  Yet his words fell on deaf ears and the wait resumed.  But if one thing characterized Kremer,Neuberger and Herberger it was their unyielding belief in their convictions and unrelenting drive to get what they wanted.  Fortunately they would also be helped out by a catastrophic turn of events, without which they may never have succeeded.

Turning Point and the Conference that changed it all

After two successful World Cup campaigns in 1954 and 1958, West Germany’s standing in international football was at its peak and it looked as though it would only get better.  That’s why few saw 1962 coming but it was the reality check the DFB needed.  A squad with little preparation went to Chile and after getting through the group stage, albeit rather laboriously, were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by Yugoslavia.  It was unimaginable and public sentiment suddenly started turning against the national team.

West Germany’s poor performance in Chile was the straw that broke the camel’s back and was painted as a direct result of the lack of professionalism in the game as well as a lack of a national league. Furthermore, the fear that the country would lose its brightest talents to foreign clubs willing to pay higher wages they simply couldn’t get in Germany became even more prevalent in the aftermath. Since the DFB was not too keen on allowing players abroad to represented their country this presented a bleak future for the national team as well.  The anti professionalism sentiments were slowly beginning to change, even within the conservative DFB.

On July 28, 1962 the 14th annual DFB meeting was held in Dortmund, a conference that would eventually culminate in the formation of the Bundesliga. Several matters were on the agenda including the selection of a new president but the most important of all came around a quarter to 14:45 when the agenda of a national league was proposed yet again. This time, the overall dissatisfaction with the national team’s performance spurred others to really consider the idea and actually implement it.

Outgoing DFB president Peco Bauwens’s words symbolized a change in mood and a collective realization that Germany could no longer resist the zeitgeist.  “We are at a turning point and it is time we take a step forward, something that should have been done long ago.  The time is ripe for a new path in German football.  It is time we reach a clear and definite decision.”  Indeed, there was no turning back and the problems could no longer be swept under the rug.

The usual questions were raised of course.  Fürth’s delegate, Paul Flierl, for example asked whether the fans would put up with clubs raising ticket prices to afford player wages and whether it would improve the quality of the players at all. There was also a fear that it would create discrepancies between the bigger and smaller clubs and that the bigger clubs would band together and act out of the jurisdiction of the DFB.  Once again, it looked as though it could be voted down.  Then Hermann Neuberger stepped up to the microphone.

Neuberger’s passionate speech is said to have made a big enough impact on the delegation to turn their vote in his favor.  “We want to finally sleep peacefully at night again and we want to give everyone the chance to be honest again. I am of the opinion that German football cannot leave this hall without receiving a clear yes or no on this matter.”  Kremer followed with his own persuasive speech in order to drum up the two thirds majority required to pass the agenda and after hours of deliberation at 17:44  the Bundesliga got the official go ahead with 103 votes in their favor and 26 against.  But there were compromises to be made and the separate agenda of player professionalism was voted down 80 to 49.  Instead, the “licensed player” was introduced.  Not quite the professional Kremer had envisioned, the licensed player no longer had to have a job and was allowed to earn more money than before.  Footballers could now legally earn up to 1200 DM.  The star players were the only ones who could go above that mandated sum.  Transfer fees were also capped at 50,000 DM and only 20% of that would go to the players.

Albeit an exhausting and political process, 75 years after England’s league was formed, Germany too now had a nationwide football league. Despite the moral victory there was still the process of selecting the clubs that would make up the new league, a process that became more problematic than most expected it to be.

The Admissions process

The league did not start out with 18 clubs and with so many regional leagues it meant that most would be denied entry and only a select few would be granted a prestigious place in the brand new Bundesliga. The admissions process might have actually been even more complicated and controversial than the creation of the league. Suffice to say, they didn’t make things easy for themselves.  Only 16 were admitted out of 46 applicants and only one club from each city was allowed.  Some of the biggest clubs of today missed out as a result including Bayern Munich. Their rivals 1860 Munich on the other hand made the cut.  Borussia Mönchengladbach too missed out although their league (Oberliga West) was arguably the most competitive in the country.  Of course, not everyone accepted their verdict. Alemania Aachen and Kickers Offenbach felt especially hard done by, having a superior points total to some teams that were admitted but were left out because of their poorer performances in the seasons immediately preceding.

Nevertheless, the DFB weren’t going to budge and stood by their strict points system. Here are the 16 teams that made up the first ever Bundesliga season.  They were judged on financial criteria as well as performance over the previous ten seasons and ranked based on a points system.  Those teams that were on equal points were judged on their performance the prior season. The 5 Oberliga champions were automatically admitted.

Borussia Dortmund – qualified as last national champions
Hamburg – Oberliga Nord champion
Werder Bremen – Qualified based on points total
Eintracht Braunschweig – finished 3rd in the 1962/63 season
1. FC Köln – Oberliga West champions
Schalke 04 – Qualified based on points total
Meidericher SV – Came in fourth in the 1962/63 season
Preussen Münster – Came in third in the 1962/63 season
1. FC Kaiserslautern – Oberliga Südwest champions
1. FC Saarbrücken – Qualified based on points total
Eintracht Frankfurt – Qualified based on points total
Karlsruher SC – Qualified based on points total
VfB Stuttgart – Qualified based on points total
1. FC Nürnberg – Qualified based on points total
1860 München – Oberliga Süd champions
Hertha BSC – Oberliga Berlin champions

A Different World

It is now difficult to imagine the circumstances under which the Bundesliga was formed and how its inaugural season played out.  When the first match officially kicked off at 17:00 on August 24th, 1963 it may as well have been played in a parallel universe.  Most players earned at most 500 DM a month, a good amount at the time but nothing compared to the wealth of today’s players.  Only the likes of Uwe Seeler, Hans Schäfer, Max Morlock earned more than that and many others still had day jobs.  In fact, a lot of players were too tired to even participate in the team’s training sessions after long days at work.

But it wasn’t different only for the players, the way the game was presented to the public was nothing like it is today.  Few if any cameras were present at matches and sport shows only had TV pictures to present and not even from all the games. There was no marketing or advertising yet and if you really wanted to take in a match you had to find your way into a stadium.  Standing room tickets cost about 3-4 DMs.

The rules of the game were completely different as well.  Backpasses were perfectly legal, although goalkeepers did not use gloves back then, as were some pretty rough challenges. Yellow and red cards had not been used yet.  To make it worse, players had to play with injuries as substitutes were yet allowed.  If a player had to come off, his team simply had to play a man down. Two points were earned for a win and goals conceded were more important than goals scored meaning a great goal difference meant relatively little when two teams were equal on points because it would be decided on goal average instead.

The Bundesliga is now known as a source of stability and consistency but its origins were anything but.  Neither were the rules or the conditions but one thing never changed over the course of 50 years and that’s perhaps summed up best by Sepp Herberger when he so eloquently said, “The ball is round”.   So happy birthday Bundesliga, here is to another great 50 years!

(Pictured in the header, from left to right: Hans Passlack, Dr. Willi Hübner, Franz Kremer, Ludwig Franz, Walter Baresel and Hermann Neuberger)


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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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