Is the Bundesliga in Danger of European Irrelevance?

In a collaboration between myself @CrittySmith and my friend @GermanFootballDaily (GFD.com), we take a closer view into why the Bundesliga is in decline and what can be done to repair it. This has been a project that has hit particularly close to home for us, having both grown up in Germany watching the Bundesliga. We hope that everyone enjoys and to spark healthy debate. Cheers!

Far removed from the glory days of Borussia Mönchengladbach ruling the league in the 1970s, a dominant Hamburger SV controlling the early 1980s, and Borussia Dortmund dismantling opponents for much of the 1990s, the German top flight has become a one club league not only domestically, but internationally as well. How did it come to this and what can the Bundesliga do to avoid becoming the next Eredivisie?

It may be hard to believe but there was a time when Hamburger SV won the European Cup (known today as the UEFA Champions League). Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Bayer Leverkusen have also represented the Bundesliga in the competition’s final.

The triumphs of Bayern München over the decades has been well-documented, but what has prevented other German clubs from having sustained success outside of their own borders? Why has no club outside of Bayern won the Champions League since Dortmund claimed the title in 1997?

Hamburg have qualified for the competition only twice in the past two decades (2000, 2006) and Borussia Mönchengladbach was essentially irrelevant domestically and most certainly internationally for nearly two generations.

Werder Bremen qualified for the Champions League five times under former manager Thomas Schaaf. Three times they failed to make it past the group stage and were never able to advance past the round of 16 during his tenure. Outside of Bayern, only Borussia Dortmund has had multiple successful campaigns in the competition over the past decade, appearing in the final once (2013) and the quarterfinals twice (2014, 2017).

Why have no German clubs been able to win the Europa League since Schalke, likewise in 1997? Sadly, only one Bundesliga side has even made it to the final of the competition over the past two decades (Werder Bremen, 2008-09). Meanwhile, Spain, England, and Italy have all had at least two different clubs win the Champions League as well as the Europa League during the past 20 years.

Former German champions VfB Stuttgart, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, 1. FC Nürnberg, and 1. FC Köln have all been relegated at least once during the past 25 years, with Nürnberg dropping to the third tier at their lowest point (1996), and Kaiserslautern facing that same fate at this moment.

Why have Valencia, Barcelona, Sevilla, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Inter, Juventus, AC Milan, and of course Bayern München all had sustained success in their domestic leagues as well as in Europe?

The answer is quite simple. Much like the Eredivisie during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the Bundesliga has become a “feeder league” to La Liga, but especially the English Premier League in recent times.

This has significantly lessened the talent pool in the Bundesliga, which has made the league far less competitive. There is no greater example of this than the events which have unfolded during the first half of the 2017-18 European campaigns. German sides have been a complete embarrassment in both the Champions League as well as the Europa League with the exception of Bayern München.

The argument that the Bundesliga has become a one team league is only further supported by the events which will unfold this May when FC Bayern München win their sixth consecutive German championship. All six having been won by double digits. A further example of how uncompetitive the league as a whole has become.

The Bundesliga’s decline in Europe

Over the past 15 years we have witnessed a dramatic change in the European football landscape. Clubs such as Chelsea FC and Manchester City have gone from being relegation candidates to perennial Premier League title contenders. In Italy, former giants Napoli and Inter have become relevant again, with the latter winning the treble in 2010. The meteoric rise of Paris Saint-Germain has been well publicized in Ligue 1.

In Spain, Sevilla have recently won three consecutive Europa League titles while Atletico Madrid was crowned as La Liga Champions in 2014 and have twice played in the Champions League final. What about the Bundesliga? Who has risen through the ranks to challenge Bayern München for German supremacy?

FC Schalke has been inconsistent and turbulent for years. Borussia Mönchengladbach has only recently become relevant again and Bayer Leverkusen has struggled for decades now to break down the walls to a German championship. It is internationally though, where the Bundesliga has taken the greatest image hit.

Since 2003 among the top five leagues in Europe, Spain has had the most Champions League semi-final representatives (19), followed by England (17), Italy (8), Germany (8) and France (3). Bayern München represents 75% of the Bundesliga’s eight appearances (6 of 8). No other league is as one-sided as the German top flight. Additionally, they are the only German side to win the Champions League during those years (2013).

Spanish clubs have won the competition seven times in that time frame, with Italian and English sides both claiming three titles each. Porto are the only side to win the Champions League in the past 15 years that does not play in one of Europe’s top five leagues.

During this time the Premier League and La Liga have claimed the most appearances in the group stage of the world’s most prestigious club football competition (59 each). Serie A is next (48) followed by the Bundesliga (47) and Ligue 1 (40). The English top flight takes the honors for the highest percentage of teams to advance to the knockout stage as well (83.1%). Spanish sides advance at a rate of 81.6% followed by Italian clubs at 79.2%. The Bundesliga is a distant fourth in this category with a group stage advancement percentage of 72.3%. Ligue 1 is last in this category at a mere 55.0%.

These numbers do not include this season’s totals as Hoffenheim failed miserably in their attempt to reach the group stage against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Also, Borussia Dortmund delivered the worst performance in their history of playing in the Champions League and first-time qualifiers RB Leipzig likewise made a quick exit.

All five English clubs advanced to the round of 16 in this year’s Champions League, three Spanish sides remain while two from Italy made the leap. The more things change, the more they indeed stay the same.

German Football Hits The Panic Button

A solid place to start with the most recent German failures abroad would be the 2016-17 season. Hertha Berlin, one of the more consistent sides in the Bundesliga over the past two years, failed to qualify for the Europa League following a two-leg defeat to Danish side Brøndby.

The names on Berlin’s roster alone should have led to an easy qualification. Furthermore, the quality of the teams Hertha faces on a weekly basis is much greater than those in the Danish league. Yet, Hertha failed.

Mainz qualified directly for the group stage of the UEL as the fifth-placed team in the Bundesliga in 2015-16. They failed to advance past the group stage. Schalke made it the furthest of all German clubs, eventually losing to Ajax Amsterdam in the quarter-finals.

The 2017-18 Europa League has been even less forgiving for Bundesliga clubs. Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, fresh off of a two-leg Champions League loss to Liverpool, were immediately sent home after the group stage.

Joining Hoffenheim with a swift exit were again Hertha Berlin and 1. FC Köln. SC Freiburg, much like Berlin a year earlier, failed to qualify for the competition after losing their two-leg fixture with Slovenian side NK Domžale.

The Bundesliga went 0-4 in the Europa League qualifiers and group stage for this season. The league will have representation in the round of 32 from Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, both having finished third in their respective Champions League groups. (Borussia Dortmund is the worst team to ever qualify for the UEL round of the 32 from the Champions League, having only accumulated two points from their six group stage matches).

This leaves who else but Bayern München as the sole German survivors in the Champions League. Dortmund and Leipzig remain as the last hopes of the Bundesliga saving face in the Europa League.

A League Is Nothing Without Star Power

Occasionally a team from Germany not named “Bayern” might sneak into the Champions League quarter or semi-finals. Unlike their Spanish, English, and Italian counterparts, they rarely sustain this success over multiple seasons.

Why is this the case though? Why aren’t Dortmund, Schalke, Leverkusen, Wolfsburg or ‘Gladbach able to consistently advance past the round of 16 in the Champions League or dare I say, contend for a spot in the final?

It may have a lot to do with the fact that many superstar players in the Bundesliga do not stay in the league for more than a few seasons. It has been commonplace over the past decade for up and coming players in the German top flight to move abroad, especially as those players reach the prime of their careers.

This has not been the case nearly as often in the Spanish, English or Italian top tiers. These leagues on average do far better at retaining their star players than the Bundesliga. This is by no means including only German-born players, but rather any young talent whose name first appeared on the international radar while playing in the Bundesliga (ex.: Roberto Firmino, Mesut Özil, Leroy Sané, Ousmane Dembélé etc.).

If you think of some of the big names who have departed Germany in just the past two or three seasons it is astounding. Top foreign players rarely leave their native lands to play in the Bundesliga. The lone exception to this rule is when a young talent uses the German top flight as a short-term stepping stone on their path to a more prestigious opportunity.

It is undeniable that there exists only one club within the Bundesliga that has the ability to retain its star players while simultaneously attracting young phenoms of other clubs within the league. The list of names is here is almost too long to mention (Mario Götze, Niklas Süle, Robert Lewandowski, Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels etc., to name a few recent examples). The rule is quite simple: If a German club has a player that Bayern wants, they will get him. It is that simple. This unwritten rule however, has done more to hurt the league than perhaps any other factor over the past decade.

Lets examine why this happens so much more frequently in the Bundesliga than in many of Europe’s other top leagues and what the DFB can do to reverse the current situation.

When the subject comes up of “how do we accomplish staying competitive with the financially strong English clubs?”, that will quickly take you to the topic “50+1”. For many, money from investors would indeed enhance the quality. Without question, a large budget helps to keep your home-grown stars while also attracting those of other clubs. However, the investor strategy does not align itself with the fan culture in Germany. And it is the fans that determine the brand essence and day to day operations in the Bundesliga. Stadiums filled to capacity. Songs and chants. Emotion.

Those are the characteristics of the Bundesliga that are recognized worldwide. The German fan does not desire to have their beloved club become a special attraction, or place the traditions of the club in the control of one person. New crests, new colors, new rules arephilosophically nearly imporssible for German fans to tolerate.   To have a club become the play toy of some billionaire who sees German traditions as obstacles rather than blessings is anathema to German fans who want their clubs…to be clubs, with fan voices considered. Negative examples from England, including the obscene rise in ticket prices that has priced many former supporters out of attending their club’s matches, spark these negative feelings.

Are traditions and investors able to coexist? Goalkeeper legend Oliver Kahn believes so:

„From my perspective it is possible to have the right investors come into a club and at the same time keep the traditions and culture of the club in tact. It is possible to have both.“

“Perhaps an adaptation to the 50+1 rule would be possible. Serious investors are not a bad thing if they are truly committed to making a club better.”, said Kahn in an interview with Die Welt.

“Indeed it would be a great for the Bundesliga to have two or three clubs that could be at eye level with Bayern and could challenge them for the title. Otherwise it is a waste of time for foreign players to come to the Bundesliga if the league is so uncompetitive.“

Borussia Dortmund legend Matthias Sammer sees things similarly:

„The league needs to give thought to the following: If things do not change, it will be very dramatic. It comes down to this: Can clubs with investors improve their current situations? Otherwise, Bayern may never be capable of being caught again, as long as they do not make any critical mistakes.“ [Bild]

One solution could be, for instance, to let the members of the club determine via elections, whether they would want to let investors into the club. Bayern boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge sees it much the same:

„Every club should decide this independently. For FC Bayern it would not be an issue if 50+1 were to go away. For us however, it has been determined that for us, 70 percent of the shares must stay within the club.”

By the end of the year, DFL wants to discuss 50+1 with the German professional clubs. A modification of this rule is also conceivable.

Creativity

Since the member clubs of the Bundesliga cannot take in money as quickly as their Premier League counterparts, they must be more creative and efficient than all others. The allowed budget must be handled with extreme caution and high intelligence. Expensive players, failed purchases and a bad transfer policy cannot be solved by simply spending more money. Many clubs must find players on the market that are undervalued.

This goes by the motto of: The price is that which you are willing to pay. The value is that which you receive. There is proof that such undervalued players exist. Take for instance the case of Ousmane Dembélé at Borussia Dortmund. His value was increased by over 1000 percent in just one season which can’t be explained by his development alone. Another good example of this is Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey who joint Bayer Leverkusen for about €12m last winter.

Of course it is easy to say: “There will always be flops on the transfer market”, though as seen below, the discrepancies in spending and transfer success is highly visible.

From 2013/14 to 2017/18: –  Expenditures – Arrivals/  Income – Departure /  Balance (courtesy of TRANSFERMARKT)

1 FC Bayern München 390,90 Mio. € 49 206,55 Mio. € 45 -184,35 Mio. €
2 RasenBallsport Leipzig 181,53 Mio. € 84 25,40 Mio. € 78 -156,13 Mio. €
3 Hamburger SV 124,20 Mio. € 87 58,30 Mio. € 80 -65,90 Mio. €
4 VfL Wolfsburg 303,30 Mio. € 97 269,05 Mio. € 94 -34,25 Mio. €
5 1.FC Köln 73,58 Mio. € 63 43,22 Mio. € 62 -30,36 Mio. €
6 Hannover 96 61,90 Mio. € 90 35,95 Mio. € 86 -25,95 Mio. €
7 Borussia Mönchengladbach 134,15 Mio. € 55 113,03 Mio. € 51 -21,12 Mio. €
8 FC Schalke 04 155,75 Mio. € 85 140,25 Mio. € 80 -15,50 Mio. €
9 Eintracht Frankfurt 47,90 Mio. € 76 35,08 Mio. € 72 -12,82 Mio. €
10 FC Augsburg 59,45 Mio. € 72 49,95 Mio. € 67 -9,50 Mio. €

This is how situations such as Hamburger SV’s are explained. Despite large investments the club is constantly battling relegation. No earnings were made and players were bought who in the end, were massive disappointments on the pitch. Hamburg has lacked an identity for many years. Managers have become sacrificial lambs for Sporting Directors. And Sporting Directors were regularly replaced, which led to some of the philosophies changing dramatically. Sammer spoke to Eurosport about this:

„To hide yourself behind a manager is easy. German football must discuss if it is on the best path moving forward.“

This is one of many things that has been discussed in Germany recently, and whether the job of the Sporting Director should have more experience required before someone ascends to the position. Particularly since it is of the utmost importance.

Influential Factors

The chances of securing a good player transfer depends on many factors like: Scouting, networks, big data, grading systems. These are few of the key items that must be in place and been fully researched in order to make the best possible purchase with the least amount of risk. Resources are sometimes scarce in the Bundesliga. This is why many clubs must be more responsible with their funds than their Premier League counterparts.

These players must pay off in the end to keep these clubs competitive. Meanwhile, in the EPL, certain clubs can afford to pay any sum of money for the players are at the top of the transfer list. If a German club like Schalke or Dortmund make a costly mistake, it could affect their ability to compete not only in their domestic league, but most certainly at the international level.

The DFB agrees that innovation is needed. It would like to act as a service provider for the clubs with a new academy. It is designed to bring together experts from all over who exchange knowledge with each other, creating a “Know-How” atmosphere in German football. Research and developement or digitalization are a major topic for the evolution of football. The DFB Academy is to become the Silicon Valley of football. With such a system in place, smaller clubs would also have a chance to profit from the knowledge provided by the DFB.

The coaches will also benefit from the DFB’s innovations. This may enable German football to produce its own Guardiolas in the future.

Giving young players a chance

Ralf Rangnick, the Director of Sports for RB Leipzig, is quoted in a recent interview on TV-TALK:

„I recently read an interesting article which stated that 83% of the players that played in last year’s Champions League quarterfinals were already playing first team football by the age of 17.“

Leipzig has apparently known this for quite a while. They only sign players under the age of 23. They sign these unbelievably talented players at a young age, not just to stockpile talent but rather, to let them play. These are the Keitas, Werners, and Upamecanos of the world. The club, however, relied less on players from their own youth. In addition Watzke said the following at the Borussia Dortmund annual assembly:

“The Mbappes and Dembélés of the world are no longer coming to BVB by the time they reach the age of 20, but likewise also not to Bayern.”

This is another reason why Borussia Dortmund plans to invest heavily in their scouting personnel.

Bayern München has started to notice during these times of increased spending that a major part of the club’s future lies within their new €70 million youth campus, an investment that is a tried and tested method to keep players for a longer period of time, who have the necessary skills. The next Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, or Thomas Müller. Players that embody the “MiaSanMia” motto.

To build a top team – retain your players

It is highly noticeable that only Bayern has been financially able to keep any player it has so desired out of all Bundesliga clubs. Borussia Dortmund has proven in the past few years that you can build a top team without necessarily retaining all of it;s players. The next goal of these clubs must be to find a way to keep their players. However, this is difficult if other clubs can offer the players a net salary that corresponds to the gross salary of the Bundesliga clubs.

How competitive the Bundesliga will be in the future depends on more than just finances. It will also depend on many other things like the aforementioned topics as well as each club’s management doing its due diligence in every case to prevent a wasted transfer.

One thing is for certain.  Should the financial advantages of foreign clubs continue to widen and should those clubs improve their own operations (managerial/sporting director education and player development), it will be extremely difficult if not altogether impossible for the average Bundesliga side to celebrate international success at any level.

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Critty Smith

Critty grew up in Amberg, Germany, but now resides in Charleston, South Carolina in the USA where he follows the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga on a weekly basis. He is an avid Borussia Dortmund fan, but enjoys all German football from top to bottom. His favorite players are "Super" Mario Götze and Christian Pulisic. You can follow him on twitter @crittysmith

2 Comments

  1. Great article. It’s an interesting conundrum between the traditional fans and the DFB.

    I feel like the DFB would be more concerned with this fact than the fans which I get the impression would rather have the football cutlure they have now than anything major changing.

    I wonder what the middle ground could be?

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