You’ve heard the line: FC Bayern is ruining German football. This is what everyone is talking about after Bayern’s 5:1 dismantling of the one club who seemed like it might, just maybe, have a slight chance of providing the Rekordmeister/Bundesliga-wrecker with something resembling a challenge for the 2015-16 league title, isn’t it?
Instead, well before the final whistle in Sunday’s “Der Klassiker” had blown, Bundesliga-internet chatter had long turned to “the league is over in the first week of October,” a line, which in turn, provided plenty of ammunition for the “The Bundesliga is a one-team league” crowd, who love to pump their fists while pointing to moments like this as evidence of the Bundesliga’s inferior status in the fictional “best league in the world” contest.
Unquestionably, one of the largest problems the Bundesliga faces in marketing itself to wider international audiences will be convincing people to invest emotionally in a league often won by one particular club in such convincing an manner – that there is no drama to be had from tracking the Bundesliga title race.
This problem is particularly challenging when trying to win over fans in the United States. Professional sports leagues here are not decided on regular-season performance, rather in post-season playoff tournaments. Hence, league champions are never known before the final moments of the league calendar. Sure, there have been blowouts in the final games or series of these competitions, which have had the effect of spoiling the party, but even the most-dominant regular-season teams must fight until the last days to get their trophy and are not always successful doing it.
Sidebar: For the sake of illustration, see the 2007-08 New England Patriots, who went undefeated in the regular season only to lose the Super Bowl, thanks largely to one exhilarating and somewhat-lucky moment.
The question of Bayern’s dominance affects me on a very personal level because I have invested a lot of time and energy promoting the Bundesliga to my fellow Americans and English-reading folk from around the world through the magic of the internet.
My countrymen who are already interested in the kind of football that is played with the feet have already invested in the English Premiership and maybe even Major League Soccer, both of which have been accessible here for years thanks to television deals and great English-language coverage.
Even when these folks might be interested in adding another league to their football interests, too often their first impression of the Bundesliga is its stigma of being a “one-team league.” While these folks are already adjusted to the idea of a league champion being decided by the season results rather than a tournament afterwards, the English league has long provided title races contested by multiple teams late into the season.
How do you do you pitch to these people the value of a league of which they know almost nothing other than “Bayern always wins”?
I don’t know of a great answer to this question.
I suppose we could encourage everyone to just become Bayern fans with the Bundesliga as their second-, third-, or even fourth-choice football league, which would allow them to tune for an almost-certain and usually easy victory on nearly a weekly basis after they’ve sweated through their English side’s match. As a bonus, they can ride their Bayern fandom to Champions League relevance, something absent of late to fans of all English sides.
Unfortunately, this idea will appeal only to a few, not enough to grow the fledgling Bundesliga fan base here to allow the league to command the sort of revenue from broadcasting rights that will help the German league start to close the ever-widening gap in fiscal resources between itself and its English peer.
Fortunately, that’s somebody else’s problem. I’m here only to write a long-form eye-roll at the idea that the Bundeliga is not worthy of wider interest.
Not only is the Bundesliga very much not a one-team league, no single team, not even one as dominant as Bayern, is capable of ruining it . . . as long as you take a proper perspective.
I will admit this takes a certain amount of myopia, but once you construct it, you will honestly get a lot of enjoyment out of what I believe to be the most-exciting league in the world.
You heard me! “The MOST-EXCITING!”
Before I get too deep into my point, let’s just get one major thing out of the way: FC Bayern München is often a marvel to watch.
If you can enjoy football played at a high level, then you should be able to enjoy watching a Bayern match at almost any time they’re not pummelling the daylights out of your beloved club. Between the talent the club has assembled and the way coach Pep Guardiola has them play, it’s truly a spectacle to behold. Hold your nose, if you must, but try to get over all the off-field politics that fuel your hatred for all things FC Bayern and enjoy 90 minutes of sporting brilliance. There is plenty of time to get back to being angry about the long-term effects on the league of FC Buy’em beating everyone over the head with their arsenal of over-stuffed sacks of money.
Okay . . . I almost need to shower for having said that, but truth is truth.
Now, let’s get back to how you too can become enchanted by the greatness the Bundesliga provides, even without any real title races of which to speak.
First, it helps largely that I am a fan (and member) of a club that would not remotely be in contention for league titles, even were the Bundesliga elite a collective of mere mortals. The 1. FC Köln provides drama at every turn, because you truly never know what result they will provide. I recently spent two seasons in the second division with them and then spent last season pleasantly surprised as they maintained a mid-table presence as a promoted side.
This is not to say one necessarily need follow a club with diminished expectations in order to enjoy the Bundesliga on the whole, but it hasn’t hindered me whatsoever, and here’s why.
From 2nd to 18th place, there is no less-predictable league than the Bundesliga.
For the folks who jumped on the Borussia Dortmund train during their brief run atop the league a few years ago without any perspective on the longer view of Bundesliga history, this unpredictability below the top spot will likely be of no comfort to you. You thought you were getting a legitimate, regular contender and have since had to watch as just another one of “the other 17,” as Bayern has run away from the league each season.
For everyone else, though, there is plenty here to enjoy, keeping in mind that there are benefits to finishing in places two through six, even if a championship is not among them. The money gained from competing in one of UEFA’s continental competitions may not ever be enough to boost a club to the top tiers of the game, where Bayern hangs out with the FC Barcelonas, Real Madrids, and Manchester Uniteds of the world, but it can be a crucial tool to the long-term process of staying competitive, especially as your talent is bound to be spotted by those clubs with more money at some point.
A study by Germany’s WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management (this text is in German, so you’ll have to translate or take my word, I guess) shows that the day-to-day competition of the Bundesliga is the least-predictable among Europe’s top leagues, which is something regular observers of the league as a whole have long sensed.
To see an example, look no further than the Bundesliga’s current representation in Europe. Both VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach, last year’s 2nd and 3rd place finishers, respectively, both were fighting for survival in the relegation battle as recently as the 2010-11 season.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to look to the past to see how quickly fortunes can change for successful clubs in Germany. Gladbach has already experienced a coaching change after losing its first five matches of the current campaign, while Wolfsburg, a club many had picked as a potential challenger for the league title this year, dropped to ninth in the table after losing to Mönchengladbach last weekend.
Maybe the best story of last season was that of small club FC Augsburg who went from pre-season relegation pick to the Europa League. Now that they’re playing in Europe, their domestic fortunes are struggling early, keeping the FCA near the relegation spots the first few months of the season, but what’s better than seeing an underdog side rise well above expectations to achieve something spectacular?
Speaking of relegation, the opposite end of the Bundesliga table is also a reliable source of dramatic competition. The biggest story at the table bottom the last two seasons has been that of Hamburger SV, one of Germany’s largest clubs, which narrowly avoided taking the drop in consecutive seasons, surviving both times by eeking out narrow victories in the relegation playoff against the third-place finisher from the 2. Bundesliga.
But before that even took place, there were five teams still capable of steering clear of the danger of landing in a bottom-three on the final match day of the season. As much as playoffs guarantee thrilling battles for championships, they also tend to dampen the late stages of regular seasons, which is never the case in the Bundesliga.
Of the two teams that were ultimately relegated last spring, you had SC Freiburg, which had played in Europa League just two season ago, having finished fifth in the 2012-13 season. Last-place finisher SC Paderborn may have been selected by many to return directly to the second division as a promoted side, but they spent a match day atop the Bundesliga table before Bayern managed to get there by taking eight points from its first four matches in the top flight, which will remain a memorable accomplishment for a club that plays in a stadium that seats just 15,000.
As great as all of this competitiveness is, it admittedly cannot replace the level of excitement that comes with a down-to-the-wire title race, the sort of which is exceedingly rare in the Bundesliga.
For those who want to focus on that issue and rail against FC Bayern for their role in assuring they face as little actual competition domestically as they can, there is little to be said to dissuade them, and they’ll find plenty of sympathizers out there in the internet. After all, the notion that Bayern uses fiscal advantages to bully the rest of the league was already a well-worn topic when I first came in contact with the Bundesliga in 1993. It’s not as if it had gone away at any point. Even when Borussia Dortmund strung together consecutive title runs, the second of which was followed by a decisive 5:2 DFB Cup final victory over Bayern, the talk was less about how the league was catching up with Bayern and more about how Bayern would respond to missing out.
By now, you likely know that their response was to win the treble the following season, starting a run of three consecutive titles won in increasingly dominant fashion, leading us to today, where we may be witnessing one of the best teams in German, if not European and/or world, football history.
Do not take this as me encouraging you to reconsider your anti-Bayern sentiment and just enjoy the greatness of their team as some have done. Heck, even a Bayern fan might have to admit that many of their club’s league matches are somewhat boring, even if that doesn’t remove their ability to enjoy their side controlling more than 70% of possession and scoring in buckets.
There are very valid points being made about the damage being done by Bayern’s superiority to the league’s growth aspirations at a crucial time in the expansion of its international marketing efforts. And if focusing on that off-field stuff is how you prefer to use your football-chat time, go for it!
But I want to promote the idea that if you’re the sort of sports fan who can enjoy more than one aspect of the game, the Bundesliga remains one of the best-available outlets for enjoying the sport. Even if the major plot line is very predictible even before it starts, there are several other intriguing plot lines that could go any number of ways, and while they’re playing out, you get great story-telling, plot-development, intriguing characters, twists and turns, and escapist settings to draw even a sports cynic into the moment.
Which is why I am no less-concerned about the league title than I was before Bayern shredded Dortmund. Once you get used to the idea of writing off the league title as belonging to Bayern, it’s pretty easy to not fret about it while enjoying all the other gorgeous things to be found in the Bundesliga.
And if, by some happenstance, some club or clubs find themselves in position to challenge Bayern some future spring? Guess what! You could still then add the title race to all the other stories you’d been following. I mean, if you’re watching football in autumn already thinking exclusively about the title . . . what are you doing?
You do what you have to do. There is a LOT of football out there, so you don’t necessarily need the Bundesliga in your life.
But ask yourself how the Bundesliga has continued to rise in prominence among football people to the point where many consider it to be among the best leagues in the world, despite the fact FC Bayern’s financial dominance is now decades old.
Ask yourself how Bundesliga sides that cannot hang with Bayern in the domestic table continue to do well in European competitions.
Look at the the league from which English sides are continually looking to poach talent.
There’s something VERY football going on in Germany, and if you let the fact that one of the greatest clubs in history dominates competition there dissuade you from being interested in that . . . I guess you’re just another victim of FC Bayern.