Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Bundesliga – a rising presence in European football

Despite being probably Europe's strongest domestic league for much of the second half of the twentieth century, the Bundesliga has been widely regarded for a while now as lagging behind the premier leagues of England, Spain and Italy.

Germany is easily Europe's largest economy, with a population of around 80 million and its fans every bit as passionate about the game as the English. The tools are definitely there for the domestic game to be great.

A main reason cited for the Bundesliga's low reputation compared with its rivals is its lack of (international) superstars, particularly throughout the last decade, with stars it does produce snapped up by 'bigger' clubs from other leagues. This has started to rectify itself, with the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery at Bayern München.

Needless to say Germany is blessed with some excellent domestic players, but what was particularly impressive about Germany's World Cup campaign was its primacy of the team (particularly highlighted when compared with England), its surprising technical quality and its excellent youth. Much of the same can be said about the Bundesliga, and it could be part of the reason why the league has been so exciting and unpredictable this season.

Indeed, the Bundesliga has been characterised by unpredictability this season. Few, even the club's players and staff themselves, could have foreseen that Borussia Dortmund, a traditional Bundesliga powerhouse who have gone seven seasons without a top three finish, would have a twelve point lead at the top, and sixteen over Bayern. Meanwhile, traditional title challengers Schalke 04, Werder Bremen and Stuttgart, champions four seasons ago, are further down the table, with the latter two even locked in a relegation battle. This, added to the excellent football the league's leading sides are producing, has made this Bundesliga season highly competitive and exciting, after many had predicted a boring season with Bayern winning at a canter.

This competitiveness is only good for the league, with every team keen to improve their squad and the 'team ethos', demonstrated so wonderfully by the national side in South Africa, applied right through the league. The bigger teams with the bigger stars have fared amongst the worst, with struggling Wolfsburg and Stuttgart amongst the biggest spenders. A central part of this is the young players coming through. Here it is easy to point at Germany's young stars of Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and particularly Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, as the prime examples, but, frighteningly, a new wave has emerged behind even them in the Bundesliga this season. Sven Bender and Mario Götze have made outstanding contributions to Dortmund's title charge, with Götze heralded as a future world star, while talent is on show at other clubs too, with Lewis Holtby (yes, he would have qualified for England), Andre Schürrle and Lars Bender names to keep an eye on in the next few years. In general, squads are getting much stronger.

The danger is, of course, that the big clubs may come in for these stars as they did last summer, again demonstrating the league's lower status compared to other European countries. But the indications are there that the Bundesliga is on the rise. It is certainly producing a huge pool of talent, and is now easily Europe's most-attended league, producing an average attendance of 41,802 last season. Dortmund's weekly attendances rival those of Manchester United and Barcelona. It will be interesting to observe how this potential manifests itself over the next few years, but the ultimate litmus test for a European league these days is Champions' League success, which German sides have had not had a lot of recently.

Bayern aside, there have been only two appearances in the Champions' league quarter finals from German teams in the last ten years (Leverkusen and Schalke once each). But this season Schalke are already there, with Bayern, although inconsistent in the league, potentially capable of beating any team. Plus it will be hugely interesting to observe the performance of Dortmund, hoping that they keep their best players, in next season's competition. They have a stronger side currently than many German teams in the Champions' League, while their spectacular Westfalenstadion might prove a daunting arena to visitors (it is at the very least deserving of this standard of football). But for now, this, reflective of domestic German football in general, remains a potentially exciting future, interesting to observe, rather than anything more than that.