By Clark Whitney
Ruthless efficiency, mental fortitude to win by any means necessary, impeccable organisation of a wall of chiseled, blond-haired and blue-eyed defenders … these are the traditional stereotypes of German football.
A decade ago, but for a few more players of darker features, Rudi Voller’s national team had fitted all the aforementioned criteria. Die Mannschaft played simple but effective football, conceding just once en route to the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama. However, they were comprehensively outclassed by a Brazil side who went on to secure their fifth title with a 2-0 victory.
At the time, German hopes rested on luck: a poor performance by the opposition, a scrappy goal from a set piece or an extensive and diverse crop of talents to emerge from the Bundesliga academies.
Germany were an underwhelming side 10 years ago. But by then, the DFB (German FA) had already planted the seeds for an entirely new footballing philosophy. It just needed time.
It all started in 2000 after Germany disgracefully exited the European Championship, having only gained a single point in a group which included Portugal, Romania and England. Luck had deserted the Nationalmannschaft, which looked old and devoid of any inspiration, and had few talents to look forward to down the road. In response, the DFB revolutionised the system of youth development in Germany.
In December of 2000, the DFB created the DFL (German Football League) to manage the 1. and 2. Bundesliga. Shortly after its creation, the DFL enacted strict mandates for clubs to get their licence to join the league. All teams in the top two tiers of German football were required to have for their academies: a certain number of training pitches, an indoor training facility, massage rooms, saunas, and physiotherapists. In addition, the DFL raised the bar for obtaining a coaching licence at youth level.
The DFL’s initiative to promote youth development was beneficial, not only for the German national team, but for Bundesliga sides, which were at a competitive disadvantage on the international stage, following the passing of the DFB’s “50+1” rule at the turn of the millennium.
Enacted to promote competition within the league and ensure the importance of fans in Bundesliga culture, the 50+1 rule requires that members must own at least 51 per cent of the club — thus eliminating the possibility of a Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour-type staging a takeover.
In the years that followed, German football struggled. The 50+1 law especially hindered Bundesliga clubs’ success in the Champions League, as their spending power paled in comparison to Europe’s nouveau-riche. The academies took time to grow, and the players — starting before their teens — took time to mature.
The DFL’s vision was one for the long term and it changed the culture of Bundesliga football. Coaches became progressively trusting of young players, and as more and more talents emerged, the clubs’ trainers developed an ardent belief in the notion that “talent without end” was attainable.
Now 13 years after the 50+1 rule and 12 years after the DFL’s licensing initiative, Bundesliga sides are finally beginning to flex their muscle on the international stage. A couple of disappointing domestic seasons forced the traditional powers to become more ambitious in the transfer market, which has bred success on the continent. And in this season’s Champions League, Dortmund and Schalke have emerged as European powerhouses. The latter are poised to win Group B ahead of Arsenal, while the former won Group D with a game to spare ahead of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax.
The success of Bundesliga clubs this season falls in line with an overall progress the league has seen lately. Bayern have reached two Champions League finals in three years, and their squad has steadily improved each term since 2009.
Schalke’s run to the semi-finals in 2010 proved that Bayern are not the only German club that can compete in the Champions League, while Dortmund’s performances in Europe this season suggest that in a two-legged tie, they have no-one to fear.
Looking forward, there is only reason to believe the Bundesliga will continue its ascent, with the honour of being Europe’s top league a long-term possibility. All the league’s stars are under 30 years of age, and in using loyal, local talents, Bayern and Dortmund have created sustainable success while avoiding the toxic culture of being used as a “stepping-stone” club. Arsenal, take note.
With Financial Fair Play set to take effect in 2013-14, the Bundesliga’s greatest advantage — its business structure — will soon show its value. Already, Europe’s top sides like AC Milan and Manchester United have curbed spending in fear of sanctions by Uefa. Many more will follow, but German teams have little to worry about in Financial Fair Play. Revenue in the country’s top flight is second only to that of the Premier League, and will only grow with the German league’s success. The Bundesliga has already landed a new deal with Sky that will see TV revenue increase 52 per cent to €628 million per year beginning in 2013-14.
Profits in the Bundesliga are as high as any other of the top leagues in Europe, and debt is a fraction of that in England, Italy, and especially Spain. A comparison of liability to turnover reveals just how close Spanish football is to financial collapse: debt in La Liga is 246 per cent of revenue. Even Barcelona owe €48m in unpaid taxes to the Spanish government — the same Spanish government that, ironically, received hundreds of millions of Euros in a bailout package from Germany.
Serie A has been in a financial and sporting nosedive as of late, and this will not change before the Italian economy recovers. Only the Premier League can compete with the Bundesliga’s financial might, but high debts, the uncertainty of Manchester City, Chelsea’s compliance with Financial Fair Play and the overall stronger German economy suggest the Bundesliga could overtake the English top flight in terms of wealth and revenue.
For most of the 2000s, German football was in a self-induced coma. Since then, a bounty of talents have emerged and clubs have enjoyed steadily increasing financial and international sporting success. Backed by Europe’s strongest economy and an organic sporting and financial model, German football is approaching not a golden generation, but sustainable, continued success.
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