This is my long overdue post on the German first division of football, ‘Die Bundesliga’, and why its Rodney Dangerfield “I get no respect” mantra of years past has been replaced by stiff competition, great players, a rabid fan following and media attention around the world.
What was my personal wake up call? The turning point that made me think, woah, the Bundesliga is much more than a bunch of local ‘Provinzkicker’ and a few strong regional teams with a faithful fan base within their Bundesland (German state) and maybe a few expat stragglers. Here are some musings …
Who the hell is Wolfsburg? Founded in 1938, the football club grew out of a multi-sports club for Volkswagen workers in the city of Wolfsburg and is a wholly owned subsidiary of VW Group. Aside a 2nd place finish in the 1995 DFB Pokal (German Cup), the team was anything but impressive and spent decades trading places in the German 3rd and 2nd division before staying put in the 1. Liga after the 1997 season … And then there was the 2008/9 Bundesliga season.
Not only did ‘Die Woelfe’ (the wolves) win the Bundesliga title, they did so in dramatic fashion with a must-win victory the last game of the season. Beyond that, they tied the Bundesliga record for consecutive wins and were the only team to boast two 20+ goal strikers with Brazilian Grafite and Bosnian Edin Dzeko scoring 28 and 26 respectively. While Grafite is past his prime and now plays club football in Dubai, UAE, Dzeko is a reliable striker and steady goal scorer for English Premier League side Manchester City. The other big sensation that year was 1899 Hoffenheim, a freshly promoted team that shocked the league winning the Herbstmeisterschaft (autumn title) at the season’s halfway mark. While devastating injuries and bad luck spoiled their championship run, it was refreshing to have the newbies along with VFL Wolfsburg dominate the footballing headlines. These epic performances and the entire roller coaster 2008/9 Bundesliga season made me realize how fun the Liga is and how extremely competitive many teams are, all with the desire and ability to give Bayern a run for their Euros.
Why would Raúl play in Germany? Raúl is a Spanish footballing legend who spent most of his career with Spanish club Real Madrid. He’s s the club’s all-time top goalscorer, a three-time winner of the UEFA Champions League and its all-time leading scorer. When he left Spain in 2010 and headed for Bundesliga club Schalke 04 most figured he’d have one more year of quality football left in his now 34-year-old body. But why Germany? Why learn a new language at such a ‘ripe’ age? And why subject yourself to inevitable disappointment after decades of top flight football accolades and accomplishments. To sum it up in Raúl’s words: “I really enjoy playing in the Bundesliga. No matter where we play, the stadiums are full and the atmosphere is incredible”. Enough said. Judging by the caliber of the league’s players and the number of foreign stars making the move to Germany, the league’s reputation has gotten a major boost. And yes, Raúl is still ‘Auf Schalke’, still playing is aging butt off.
Let’s dig a bit deeper and compare Bundesliga facts and figures with the other ‘big’ leagues — the English Premier League (EPL), Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A.
Competition: This is what it’s all about … teams clawing and scratching to gain an advantage in the league table and hopefully finish in a favorable position that will bring the club major revenue via a Europa League or Champions League spot, or perhaps even a league championship. Let’s look at titles — according to a recent Kicker Sportmagazin statistic, the last 7 Bundesliga championships have been won by 4 different teams (Bayern, Wolfsburg, Stuttgart and Dortmund). Compare that to England, Italy and Spain, where 2 teams have dominated the league during that same time frame. Let’s look at table positions among the top 4. As of late January, 1 point separated Bayern at the top from 4th placed Borussia Moenchengladbach; 6 points separated Italy’s 1st place Juventus Turin from Inter Milan’s 4th position, while the point difference between one and four was 13 in England and 18 in Spain. Lastly, when looking at ‘first vs. worst’ matches dating back to 2000, German Bundesliga underdogs have a 26.3% chance of beating their top ranked rivals compared to only 17.6 % in England and a shocking 0% in Italy. Yes, within the last 11+ years, not one Italian last placed team has beaten a first placed rival.
Diversity: Thanks to an awesome German football statistics site called Transfermarkt (with English, Italian and Spanish versions among others), we know that 49% of all 519 players in the 1. Bundesliga are foreigners compared to 38% in La Liga, 48% in Italy and a whopping 63% in the English Premier League. The foreign player statistics are useful because they help silence naysayers that claim the Bundesliga is isolated and insular to top foreign player investment. In terms of attracting top international talent to Germany, the ‘homegrown’ approach has worked really well, and within the last 3 years in particular, German-born stars such as Mueller, Goetze, Reus, Kroos, and Schuerrle have single-handedly taken Bundesliga competition to the next level. The tables are slowly turning with Spanish and Italian teams recruiting the likes of Oezil, Khedira and Klose away from the homeland.
Fan base: The Bundesliga continues to boom. Average per match attendance in the first 17 games of the 2011/12 season was 44,791, the best in the league’s history, and 48% higher than Serie A figures, 32% more than La Liga and 23% higher than England’s top flight. A total of 6.78 Million fans saw 153 games in the first half of the season, a 7% increase from 2010/11 when a total of 12.88 Million filled German stadiums to see Bundesliga action.
Media exposure & global curb appeal: Ironically, the German Soccer League (Deutsche Fussball Liga (DFL)), has done a much better job of promoting and more importantly providing match access abroad than at home. That’s good for us in the states, yet crappy for my family and buddies in Deutschland. While the German pay-per-view option (Sky TV) has a few million Bundesliga package subscribers, the other 80 million Germans have to wait for Saturday nights and the Sportschau (celebrating 50 years in 2012) to get their Bundesliga fix. The local channels ARD and ZDF do broadcast occasional Bundesliga clashes as well as Champions League action but our options stateside are much better! On any given weekend (starting with the solo Friday night game), I can tune into 3-4 Bundesliga matches on GolTV, the Spanish language ESPN Deportes, or ESPN Now’s internet stream, which is also available via my XBOX 360. In addition, GolTV offers two Bundesliga-specific programs, a 30 minute weekly match preview called Bundesliga Magazine and a 30 minute match review with Hallo! Bundesliga.
So to sum it up, I strongly believe old Ben Franklin’s enduring saying “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” most accurately applies to the Bundesliga in 2012.