Book Review: Lee Price’s The Bundesliga Blueprint

TheBundesligaBluePrint_cover picAmerica, the Bundesliga is here, thanks to Fox Sports now owning the broadcasting rights to the world’s most exciting football export. Outside of Germany’s die Nationalmannschaft winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and Bayern Munich’s lofty dominance, perhaps you don’t much about the world of German fußball.

But you’re eager. You’re in love with this German fußball stuff. You’re on the bandwagon to stay. I mean, this Germany place has won three World Cups since England won their only victory (1966), and perhaps you’re ready to admit that the British Premier League is not the greatest thing on earth, or even God’s best friend. You’re ready to watch the league – the Bundesliga – where the play is more interesting and attractive. And did I mention that the atmosphere at the matches can’t be topped in any of Europe’s other big leagues?

You’re eager, but you’re a bit confused and intimidated: how did Germany become this contemporary world powerhouse? Or how did the Bundesliga become so damn awesome? You have vague notions but lack specifics.

Have I described you, dear reader?

If so, then journalist Lee Price‘s short primer, The Bundesliga Blueprint: How Germany became the Home of Football (Bennion Kearny, 174 pages), is the book for you. Price’s account of Germany’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Euro 2000 footballing disaster provides an introductory look both at the recent rise of the German national squad and the Bundesliga’s emergence as the world’s most exciting and supporter-friendly football league.

At 174 pages, Price’s account is a quick read, the kind you could knock out during the next international break, for example. Furthermore, given Price’s vantage point as an English journalist, the book’s outsider perspective offers appropriate guidance to readers new to German football in general. Blueprint‘s ideal reader is indeed the type I characterized in the first couple of paragraphs. Although readers with a deeper “insider” perspective on German football will look elsewhere for narratives and analysis beyond the broad strokes that Price composes with, they, too, will probably glean something from Blueprint.

One of the book’s strongest sections is the beginning when Price recounts Germany’s now-infamous failure at the 2000 Euros (an ignominious group stage exit). Although this tournament failure now has iconic, or almost fetishized, status in football lore, Germany’s preparation for, play in, and reaction after the tournament is typically glossed over to set up what comes next in Germany’s football redemption story.

Not in Price’s account, however.

Price lingers over the 2000 Euros, including interviews with Jens Nowotny and Michael Ballack about the chaotic aftermath and soul-searching after the tournament. Price’s work in this opening chapter directly sets up, emotionally and logically, the need for Germany’s now-fabled “Ten Year Plan,” the subject of chapter two. These two chapters read together and interpret Germany’s response to sporting failure with direct cause-and-effect problem-solving. Germany’s resulting youth academy especially commands Price’s attention, both in this chapter and throughout the book. We learn that German authorities were directly influenced by France’s national football center, Clairefontaine, and instead of creating a centralized German national football center, dispersed national football development across the entire country through youth academies, which eventually became compulsory requirements for Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 sides.

My favorite moments in Blueprint occurred when Price dug into describing these academies —  for example, the eight criteria from the Double PASS system used to evaluate the academies, or the academic system designed for preparing the attendees for life after football, or the coach training program embedded into Germany’s higher education system. It’s inspirational stuff for any footballing national. The rest of us are envious. One anecdote illustrates the program’s success: Mario Götze’s World Cup-winning goal against Argentina. This goal, in Price’s telling, was the direct product of Germany’s 10-year plan, as reflected by Dortmund’s youth academy, in terms of the player’s mindset and technical training, e.g. in BVB’s “footbonaut.” According to BVB’s Edwin Boekamp, Götze’s World Cup winner “was made here. It was exactly the same. A ball coming in high, from an angle, and having to put it in a very precise position. He’s been training his whole life for that moment.”

In Blueprint, Price is at his best when recounting Germany’s “Ten Year Plan” and related elements, such as the youth academies or Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 clubs’ willingness to play youth. However, the book coherence suffers when Price tries to stitch together a portrait of wider German footballing culture by discussing the Bundesliga’s cache.

Midway through, Price begins developing a narrative about the Bundesliga’s vaunted fan-friendly confines. This narrative hinges on his bigger, “Ten Year Plan” national narrative, given the connection Bundesliga clubs necessarily had in developing youth talent. However, Price’s Bundesliga narrative seems disjointed with the larger narrative arc on the “Ten Year Plan.” For example, Price’s obvious admiration of Germany’s low ticket prices, exhilarating matchday atmospheres, and supporter-grounded clubs is not a natural extension, nor development of, his larger purpose in Blueprint.

Indeed, the book’s title is probably misleading in this regard. Blueprint is not centered on the Bundesliga, rather the Bundesliga is ancillary to Price’s larger focus on the DFB’s “Ten Year Plan” and the road to World Cup glory in 2014. The Bundesliga’s place in this framework is secondary, but Price can’t help himself with side trips into the Bundesliga’s supporter experience. In the bigger picture, these forays don’t fit – and probably deserve a more sustained and wider treatment of their own, as – for example – you will find in the scholarship of Udo Merkel.

Price’s coverage of the Bundesliga reads like someone from “Premier League Land” gazing wistfully at Germany’s cheap matchday tickets and at teeming supporter sections. Although I really enjoyed Price’s quoted material from club officials, Fan Projekt teams, or SLOs (a term that’s left undefined) genuflecting at the sovereignty supporters enjoy in German footballing culture – Uli Hoenness: “We do not think fans are like cows who you milk, football has got to be for everybody. That’s the biggest difference us and England” – his writing seems to recirculate now-reified notions of the Bundesliga supporter experience, missing out on turbulence below the surface that the likes of 11 Freunde or Uli Hesse have covered in depth. That is, Germany’s Bundesliga is cross-pressured by many of the same economic and political tensions that we associate with the globalized product we derisively call “modern football.” Price’s account would have benefitted from engagement with sources like these, balancing his reliance on “insiders,” such as ex-players and club officials.

To Price’s credit, he turns a critical eye toward the Bundesliga, especially the league’s viability to become Europe’s premier domestic league. For example, he points to factors like the league’s subpar TV contracts, Bayern Munich’s dominance (Price includes whole chapters on Bayern and Dortmund), and the league’s seemingly impenetrable “glass ceiling” of global exposure and branding. However, even here Price’s critique seems to recirculate conventional views about the Bundesliga’s commercial inferiority to something like the Premier League.

Nonetheless, Blueprint‘s material on the Bundesliga will benefit the type of reader I characterized at the beginning of this review – he’s able to cover a remarkable amount of ground in only 174 pages. After finishing Price’s book, you can only come away with an adequately developed framework of Germany’s recent rise to footballing success and the Bundesliga’s unique place in European domestic football.

Bundesliga newbies, give it a read.

The Bundesliga Blueprint: How Germany became the Home of Football, out now in paperback and ebook, published by Bennion Kearny.

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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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