In typical fashion, the Germans spoiled the party.
Come May 25, 2013, the English Football Association was due to celebrate a hundred and fifty years of incompetence, sorry existence, with the crowning glory of the second Champions League final in Wembley in three years. Football was coming home and with an English team defending their crown, and a couple more at home raring to cut their teeth in Europe’s elite competition, you would have to be a hard soul to deny the progress of two English teams into the final of the Champions League.
Unfortunately, the English didn’t even get the next best thing; the umpteenth El Clásico in the last three years and a chance for Jose Mourinho to surround himself in the cocoon of love or for the best player in the world to strut his stuff in the hallowed grounds beneath the arch. Instead, as they have done for so many times in the past, the bloody Germans intervened, and it will be interesting to see what the latest football betting tips will be for the all-German final.
This has happened before. Football came home in Euro 96, but the English still had to contend with Andreas Möller’s peacock strut in a penalty shootout loss. It happened also in 1990 when Gary Lineker called football a game where in the end, “the Germans always win.” And it also happened as recently as 2010, with Gareth Barry still recovering from the fumes of Mesut Özil’s afterburners.
But, I guess, the English will always have Munich.
So instead of showering in glory the actors they know so well, the English will be forced to crown a decade worth of German investment, in often scoffed upon principles, with the Bundesliga’s first Champions League winners since 2001.
Relative to the size of the country it belongs to, the Bundesliga has often underachieved in comparison to its neighbours in Italy, Spain and England. Eintracht Frankfurt were decimated in the first ever European final and, apart from sole bright spots of Hamburg and Dortmund, no German team bar Bayern Munich have ever dominated Europe’s elite club competition. Even the Bavarians have lacked sheen over the last decade, falling in the wayside as nouveau riche clubs like Chelsea strode the grounds of Europe like a titan. Traditionally, throughout the 80s and 90s, the Bundesliga, for a variety of reasons, had always been an exporter of their best talents; players like Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme were stars in the glittering Serie A of the 90s, Bernd Schuster’s Blond Arrows pierced defences in La Liga and even further back Günter Netzer and Paul Breitner were the Teutonic reference points in Spain’s most famous club.
Over the last decade though, the German exports dried up. One reason for this was the lack of truly top-level talent coming through. The main protagonists of German teams in the turn of the century either played for Bayern Munich or one of the many pretenders that popped up like clockwork to punctuate the Bavarian’s hegemony. And then they turned up at Munich. There were Michael Ballack from Leverkusen and Miroslav Klose from Werder Bremen, and both duly found their way to Bayern. Exports though were non-existent and indeed the German teams of the 2006 (bar Jens Lehmann and Robert Huth) and 2010 World Cup drew every member of their squad from the Bundesliga.
But another more interesting reason for this lack of migration was that the Bundesliga was slowly but surely developing into an entertaining league in its own right. Lacking the eye-watering funds that propelled Spain and England into dizzying heights, the Bundesliga steadily developed a reputation as a competitive, exciting league played infront of full houses in modern stadiums where fans had a real say in what their club did. The Italians still scoffed at the Bundesliga’s apparent lack of strength and the English found their principles alien. But the Germans did not care. And why would they? The Bundesliga was steadily becoming hipster Utopia and, slowly but surely, it started translating into performances as well.
Germany announced themselves to the world in 2010 with an exciting brand of football just as Bayern Munich reached their first Champions League final in a decade. With a plethora of young players fed by the German football academies, clubs like Werder Bremen and Schalke started making their own inroads into Europe, with varying degrees of success. Bayern too, shed a generation of mediocrity by investing in the cream of the crop and introducing, through Louis van Gaal, the Dutch-style of possession football. The wily old fox, Jupp Heynckes tuned it further and at their best Bayern are now a majestic, purring beast, as capable of playing out melodious, hypnotic passing triangles in midfield as they are of unleashing havoc through the wings or overpowering teams with their sheer physicality. Three Champions League finals in four years speak volumes of their clout in Europe but Bayern will want to win the elusive ‘big ears’ to shed the annoying tag of nearly-men that has been anointed upon them of late. Psychology works in funny ways – sometimes you just cannot win, and then once you start winning, sometimes you just cannot stop winning. Just ask Spain.
Intriguingly though, Bayern are not the only European challengers that the Bundesliga has spewed forth. Up north, Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund team has already wowed plenty in the last two years with their breathtaking brand of quick transition football. Dortmund is the antithesis of tiki-taka, their breathless brand of vertical football and all-round pressing just a pure staccato beat of brilliance. As Klopp himself puts it, “there is no defence to football that is fast, accurate and direct.” And so far there truly has been none, as Dortmund have stuck it to the man in a season of utter brilliance. They might have abdicated their throne back home, but the Ruhr club on a shoestring budget (relatively) is now Europe’s darling.
Wembley will be a coronation of either of these two contrasting clubs, and you can find but there are reasons to be hopeful of the Bundesliga’s growth. Schalke won their Champions League group and were a whisker away from the quarterfinals and Leverkusen next season, led by Sami Hyypiä, look a good bet to make at least some headway into Europe. Down below, Gladbach under Lucien Favre, can be a good mid-table European side and clubs like Mainz and Freiburg play increasingly modern football. More importantly, the conveyer belt of German talent still shows little sign of abating and intriguingly, bar a couple of glaring examples, the best German players are now deciding to stay in Germany, while the more ‘second-string’ ones try their luck abroad.
In typical German style however, more eloquent historians have already rung warning bells, saying that this might just be the best it ever gets. Bayern’s capture of Mario Götze is a telltale warning sign of a lack of competitiveness, and Uli Hoeneß’ tax issues are an inconvenient truth that the Bundesliga swiftly needs to learn to live with.
But sometimes, the Germans actually just worry too much. As Rafa Honigstein once said, for Germany, “happiness is just a temporary abatement of angst”. However, on recent evidence, this abatement may last longer than many believe it will. To borrow a line from Guy Ritchie, for quite a while we have been hearing that “the Germans are coming.” Now they might, just finally, have arrived.
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