Bayern Munich, the Champions League, and Tricky Hermeneutics

For my own personal spectating, the Champions League is a cathartic opportunity. As someone who hates Bayern in the Bundesliga, I actually watch the Champions League hoping that Bayern will win the tournament. Why? Simply to get some meaning out of  Bayern’s Bundesliga reign of terror these last six seasons. My thinking goes something like this: Bayern winning the Champions League at least would justify the beat-downs the Bavarians give everyone each Bundesliga matchday. Those who receive the “Bayern Treatment” suddenly could become slightly proud sparring partners of the European champs, rather than mere grass trampled under Bayern’s giant feet.

Of course, Bayern hasn’t won the Champions League since 2012-13, meaning my need for a Bayern catharsis is desperately overdue.

Bayern’s latest attempt ended this Tuesday with a 4-3 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals. For the second year running, Bayern’s nemesis is Real Madrid, and for the fifth year running, it’s a Spanish side who’ve knocked Bayern out of the tournament. Each year that Bayern fails to win the Champions League means that the Bundesliga becomes just a bit more meaningless and a bit more nihilistic for the rest of us, who are tired of Bayern’s title streak.

To repeat my opening point, Bayern winning the Champions League would sort of justify the club’s stranglehold over the Bundesliga. Of course, the subjunctive register of would is key here, because Bayern haven’t won the tournament in half a decade now. For any other club not named Real Madrid (or perhaps Barça), a five year UCL trophy drought is perfectly acceptable, given how difficult a season-long knockout tournament like the Champions League is to win because winning it requires a healthy squad and good luck. In this broader context, Bayern’s five year drought is perfectly plausible. In the tier of top superclubs, to which Bayern belongs, obviously only one club can win the UCL each year, leaving the other superclubs parched until next season. However, from a Bundesliga vantage point, Bayern’s drought is slightly humiliating. Why? Because it makes the Bundesliga look one-dimensional as a development league for everyone else. Bayern has thrashed the league for six seasons in a row, further distancing itself from everyone else, all while stripping its rivals for parts. Meanwhile, despite terrorizing the Bundesliga, Bayern can’t even win the damn Champions League, which raises the question: what’s the point for Bayern and the Bundesliga right now? It’s all chaff in the wind. Good bye. I think I’ll sulk off to the 2.Bundesliga now …

Partially, in the paragraph above, I’m mimicking the voice of a hysterical Bundesliga lover, who probably reads too much Jean-Paul Sartre. After all, I’m an advocate of the “imagine there’s no Bayern” Bundesliga, so only faint echoes of this hysteria infects my spectating. However, even “faint echoes” implies this view does have a foothold in me, and I can’t help but conclude that there’s a kernel of truth in this hysterical voice.

It seems plausible that all of us Bundesliga lovers would, at the very least, get a modicum of meaning from Bayern winning the Champions League—a modicum of catharsis for suffering all those “Bayern Treatments.” Because, you know, the European champs would pound the bacon out of everyone. Bayern winning the Champions League would at least be something the rest of us Bundesliga folks could point at when the football trolls in our lives mock the Bundesliga.

Of course, whether this compensatory mechanism of fandom is warranted or not is open to debate. Football trolls aside, pegging the Bundesliga’s status on Bayern winning the Champions League is ultimately pretty foolish, especially when if you examine the hermeneutical steps that construct this hope. This line of thinking falls into the trap (a version of the “genetic fallacy”?) in which a single football club becomes a proxy for an entire league. It’s as if Bayern suddenly becomes the ranking senator from the state of Bundesliga in sort of representative Euro football government. Or that Bayern is ultimately the metonym for the Bundesliga.

First, this interpretative move in which represents the Bundesliga is simply wrong. Bayern exists and operates on a different stratosphere than any other German club. The Bavarians’ financials, marketing sway, trophy cabinent, and good ol’ clout is superclub-level, not Bundesliga-level. It’s no wonder that Uli Hesse’s history of Bayern is subtitled “Creating a Global Superclub.” Ontologically, Bayern exists in a totally different entity class than anyone else in Germany. In fact, Bayern is probably the most convincing single club argument for a European Super League. Sorry, Celtic Football Club.

Second, this line of thinking also falls into the frustratingly simplistic narratives that football media outlets like to construct, in which every match (or knockout tie) is a “statement,” saying something significant about the football in X club and Y league. In this framework, a football season becomes a linear series of “statements,” all piling up to an ultimate conclusion. According to this conventional framework, “Bayern’s failure is the Bundesliga’s failure … and by the way … have you seen how bad the Bundesliga’s become these days? Geez, Bayern has won six titles in a row. What’s going on there?” According to this hermeneutic, single match results take on too much significance. Speaking of hermeneutics, the problem is that many narrative techniques don’t assemble enough variables, especially “unsexy” variables like luck, random chance, and statistical noise.

In fact, the narratives built on “statement” matches are usually less interesting than the actual truth with its “unsexy” variables. Weird things happen. Sven Ulreich makes the blunder of his life. Marcelo’s handball is missed. Lewandowski plays like crap for two matches. Typically, truth outwits our football fictions. Just take a look at the Expected Goals totals for Bayern and Real Madrid over the two legs:

Ah, I dare you to ask poor Ulreich about the “uncanny power of the threepeat,” which surely haunted this match like the sweet music on Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (Look, I never claimed to be a football materialist or objectivist!) Regardless, the truth about the Bayern-Real Madrid tie from an xG perspective is tragicomic for Bayern fans. Amazingly, the xG perspective from 2016’s identical Champions League semis is just as ridiculous:

A two match knockout tie is so exciting precisely because of all the unexpected things that happen. In light of interpreting Bayern and the Bundesliga, you really can’t say a damn thing about either from these semi-final ties, because the results and the run of play are absurdly at cross-purposes.  To be fair, media outlets seem to have the right perspective about the Bayern-Real Madrid semi-final ties. The consensus that I’ve heard from German media, Fox Sports, and various podcasts is that Bayern was clearly the better side. And was unlucky. In this case, we all collectively got the narrative right. However, the trap I’m trying to avoid is retroactively reading Bayern’s five seasons of Champions League “failures” (heh) back into how I interpret the Bundesliga.

And yet the experience of watching this season’s semi-final tie was frustrating. Somehow, it’s belittling to see a Bundesliga keeper like Ulreich make that unbelievable blunder, or it’s slightly insulting to see Robert Lewandowski just disappear during this tie, especially during Tuesday’s match. The case of Lewandowski was particularly maddening; he was one of the worst players on the pitch—something I’ve never seen before. Naturally, chatter about Lewa being a “flat track bully” is gaining traction. And naturally, I find this talk a bit embarrassing given the weekly torture Lewa inflicts on Bayern opponents with his hold-up play, shooting, lurking, and scoring abilities. Watching Lewa orchestrate the destruction of one’s Bundesliga side is about as hopeless as it gets in the league. Reflections like these made me feel angry toward Lewandowski. Irrationally angry. I kid you not.

I get it, this previous paragraph performs the very hermeneutic moves I just critiqued. Yes. Ultimately, I am ambivalent about this whole Bayern thing. Partially, I’m able to bracket away Bayern during Bundesliga matchdays; partially, I’m able to construct interpretative narratives about Bayern’s meaning for the Bundesliga. Partially, I’m in love with everything else happening in the Bundesliga. Partially, I’m despairing about Bayern’s status as an entirely different (superior!) entity, which the rest of the Bundesliga is stuck with. But mostly, these past six seasons have made a slightly off-kilter madman out of me, who is learning how to love the Bundesliga.

Despite Bayern Munich.

 

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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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