The German Bundesliga kicks off MatchDay One of its 2011-2012 campaign Friday with a matchup between reigning champions Borussia Dortmund and Hamburger SV. With former German international Jurgen Klinsmann taking over the reins of the USMNT after Coach Bob Bradley was dismissed, and Bundesliga players Torsten Frings and Frank Rost joining MLS clubs in recent weeks, it’s time to look at the league where all these players starred, and where Klinsmann coached Bayern Munich after taking the German national team to a 3rd place finish in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
The Bundesliga consists of 18 teams in the first tier, with another 18 clubs competing in the 2nd division (2. Bundesliga). The Bundesliga was formed in 1963, consisting of only West German clubs, after a lengthy history in Germany of regional divisions. The first half of the season (the Hinrunde) consists of seventeen weeks of play, each club playing the other once, that begins in August and ends before Christmas. A winter break of about a month will end with 1. Bundesliga play resuming on January 21, 2012, again each club playing each other once for seventeen more matches with the season ending May 5. Also important in Germany is the DFB Pokal, the nation’s version of England’s FA Cup. Sixty-four German clubs began the single-elimination Cup tournament this past weekend, with several top clubs already eliminated.
Miami-based GolTV is the major provider of Bundesliga coverage in the United States, holding licensing rights through this season. GolTV also sub-licenses Bundesliga games to ESPN Deportes for televising and ESPN3 to be streamed online. The Bundesliga generally schedules its 34 matchdays to include one Friday match, five on Saturday and three on Sunday, which translates for U.S viewers into a Friday afternoon match and matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Matches involving Bundesliga teams in this year’s Champions League (Borussia Dortmund, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and FC Bayern Munich) can be viewed on FSC and Fox Soccer Plus, while clubs battling in the Europa League (FSV Mainz 05, Hannover 96 and FC Schalke 04) have games televised on GolTV — and both can be viewed on the DirecTV UEFA packages. And although 2. Bundesliga matches are not televised in the U.S., live streams of the matches on Friday afternoons, Saturday and Sunday mornings and Monday afternoons are easy to find online.
The Bundesliga is growing in stature, too. The league will field a fourth club in Champions League after this season, snatching a berth from Serie A in the complex FIFA UEFA coefficients that determine how many clubs from each country compete in the top European competition. But besides being a league on the rise, the Bundesliga makes for compelling viewing, and should be in the mix with American soccer fans’ viewing habits that already include the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and MLS.
Like the Mexican FMF south of our border, the Bundesliga is another league that is highly unpredictable from season to season. Although FC Bayern Munich are the “biggest” club and have won the most Bundesliga titles, one really can’t automatically write in Bayern Munich as champions. Last season, the youthful and exciting Borussia Dortmund jumped from fifth place to convincingly capture the league title, and while Die Bayern won the previous season, VfL Wolfsburg won in 2008-2009 after finishing fifth the season before. VfB Stuttgart won the 2006-2007 championship while finishing 9th in the prior campaign. Even more unlikely is the tale of FC Schalke, which won last season’s DFB Pokal and went to the semifinals of the Champions League before running into Manchester United, yet finished 14th in the Bundesliga table.
The unpredictability of the league doesn’t just exist at the championship level. Hertha Berlin finished fourth in the league in 2008-2009, but finished 18th the next season and were relegated (they return to the top-tier this season). Werder Bremen were in the Champions League last year and were a UEFA Cup finalist recently, but struggled to avoid relegation last season, and 2008-2009 champion Wolfsburg were saved from relegation on the final day of the season. “Small” clubs like Mainz and Hannover will be making rare appearances in the Europa League this season; Mainz was only in its second season back from 2. Bundesliga when it qualified, and Hannover qualified by finishing 4th last season in the Bundesliga table after finishing 15th the year before.
The surprises aren’t limited to league play itself. In the first round of this year’s DFB Pokal last weekend, 1.Bundesliga clubs such as VfL Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Werder Bremen and SC Freiburg have already been eliminated by lower division sides – Werder Bremen by third division club FC Heidenheim SB. Go figure — on Tuesday Werder beat EPL side Everton 1-0 in a friendly.
German football is boring and defensive. Not. The Bundesliga annually leads the top five European leagues in goals scored per game, and in fact has done so for the last 21 years straight. Last season, fixtures in Germany’s top-flight averaged 2.92 goals per match, followed by the EPL (2.80), La Liga (2.74), Serie A (2.51) and Ligue 1 (2.32). The top five domestic leagues ended in the same order the year before. Germany annually leads the Big Five European leagues in scoring, France features the least goals per match year after year, while the other three big leagues jostle positions in the pecking order.
Last season, third-place Bayern Munich led the Bundesliga with 81 goals in 34 matches – especially surprising considering that the Munich side was last in the league in scoring around the quarter pole in the season. Bayern Munich forward (Super) Mario Gomez, considered an over-priced flop after transferring from Stuttgart the year before, got playing time as injuries ravaged Bayern Munich early in the season and ended up scoring 28 goals in 33 league appearances, and another 11 goals in 13 Champions League and DFB Pokal games. SC Freiburg’s Pappis Demba Cisse was second in league goalscoring with 22, while champions Dortmund knocked in 67 goals while only allowing 22.
It is no accident that the Bundesliga annually leads the top five European leagues in goals per game. The heavy financial investment in youth academies by league clubs and the emphasis placed on teaching attacking football from the academy level on up is designed to make German football attractive to spectators.
Last season Bundesliga matches attracted an average of 42,400 fans in the seats. According to an ESPN Soccernet article by Uli Hesse, “two years ago, the English company Deloitte calculated that the Bundesliga attracts, on average, about 50% more fans than the other four big leagues – 40,000 to those leagues’ (combined) 26,400. According to Deloitte, the Bundesliga is the best-supported league in the entire world.”
There are several reasons for this, one of the most cogent being that Bundesliga clubs keep their ticket prices low, to include fans whose incomes are moderate or even less so. The Swiss Ramble, an excellent blog about finances in the footballing world, had this to say in an article last October. “It is surely no coincidence that the Bundesliga has the lowest ticket prices of Europe’s five major leagues and consequently the highest attendances. The Bundesliga chief executive, Christian Seifert, argues that keeping tickets cheap is part of German clubs’ core value of placing the supporter first, as they know how valuable the fan base is. According to Deloittes, the average price for a Bundesliga match is €19 compared to €51 in the Premier League, which is almost three times as much. That’s a huge difference, especially for younger supporters.”
There is a cost to this, as artificially reduced revenues from lower-priced tickets, along with foreign TV revenues that lag behind those of the EPL, La Liga and Serie A, mean that it is financially difficult in Germany to build a dominant team or teams that go deep in the Champions League year after year or win domestic title repeatedly. Bundesliga clubs are also effected by the 50+1 rule concerning “ownership,” which Mr. Hesse can explain much better than I can.
Youth and Newcomers Welcome (and an Occasional Old-Timer Too)
Last season’s champion Dortmund club fielded a weekly lineup with an average age of 23 — an average skewed by the presence of ‘elderly’ goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, 30. Glancing at the German national team roster, you’ll see young Bundesliga stars already earning international caps, talents such as Dortmund’s Mats Hummels (22), Marcel Schmelzer (23), Mario Götze (19); Bayern Munich’s Holger Badstuber (22), Toni Kroos (21), Thomas Muller (21, winner of the 2010 World Cup Golden Boot); Schalke’s Benedict Howedes (23) and Lewis Holtby (20) and Bayer Leverkusen’s Andres Schurrle (20). The top two national team goalkeepers, Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Leverkusen’s Rene Adler, are 25 and 26 years old, respectively.
But one doesn’t have to be German to star in the league as a youngster. Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa transferred from Japanese League 2nd division side Cerezo Osaka. He made his Bundesliga debut at age 21 last August and set the league afire with his phenomenal play before his injury in January’s Asian Cup sidelined him for almost the entire second half of the season. Nineteen-year-old Greek defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos not only featured in 18 of Schalke’s regular season matches, but played in the advanced stages of the Champions League.
Newcomers from less-prestigious clubs are welcome, too. Cisse, a native of Senegal, led SC Freiburg to respectability by virtue of his goal-scoring prowess after arriving from 2nd division French side Metz, while Ivorian Didier Ya Konan left Norway’s Rosenborg club to ignite Hannover into the Europa League tournament with 14 goals and superb link-up play in the 96ers’ efficient counter-attacking style. Players don’t have to an outstanding pedigree or be veterans to get a chance to star in this league — talent and a willingness to put team ahead of self govern playing time, while age doesn’t matter.
Of course, established stars from other leagues transfer in. Veteran Italian forward Luca Toni played at Bayern Munich for a few seasons recently, and Real Madrid icon Raul cemented his legacy by leading the mediocre Schalke club to the German Cup title and deep into the Champions League, while ingratiating himself to Schalke fans by leading their celebratory chants after victory.
North Americans in Germany
U.S. international and Hannover right back Steve Cherundolo is currently the dean of North American players in the Bundesliga, Hannover is the only professional club he’s played for, arriving in 1999, and he’s not only team captain but also considered by fans to be “the Mayor of Hannover” not only for his longevity and exemplary leadership but also for his interactions with fans and his efforts in behalf of the kinder-herz (a charity devoted to children suffering from heart disease). German-American goalkeeper David Yelldell (Leverkusen) will backup the injured Adler, while the status of American internationals Jermaine Jones (Schalke) and Michael Bradley (Borussia Monchengladbach) is currently unclear –both played on loan last winter in the EPL but are back with their German clubs. (Bradley has voiced his interest in playing in Italy and did not make the bench for Gladbach’s Cup game, while Jones did play the 2nd half of Schalke Cup match Sunday). Nurnberg’s young Timothy Chandler had a dreamlike 2011, cracking the Nurnberg lineup and playing well in his debut games with the USMNT. Other Americans on top-tier rosters include Alfredo Morales at Hertha Berlin, Daniel Williams at Freiburg and Jared Jeffrey at Mainz, while Canadian internationals Marcel de Jong (FC Augsburg), Rob Friend (Hertha Berlin) and Kevin McKenna (FC Koln) should all see playing time. Mexican international Francisco ‘Maza’ Rodriguez has joined Stuttgart for the new season, following in the footsteps of fellow Mexican internationals Pavel Pardo and Ricardo Osorio at Mercedes-Benz Arena.
More American players will feature in 2. Bundesliga this season, including Ricardo Clark (Eintracht Frankfurt), Edson Buddle (FC Ingolstadt), Matt Taylor (SC Paderborn 07), Luis Robles (Karlsruher SC), and Hawaiian teenager Bobby Shou Wood (1860 Munich), while other young Americans such as Preston Zimmerman and Amaechi Igwe will play in the third division, and exciting talents like Joseph Gyau and Joseph Renken are in Hoffenheim’s youth system. Canadian international Olivier Occean has already scored twice in the early going for 2 Bundesliga side SpVgg Greuther Furth.
The Bundesliga is a league to watch because of its unpredictability, goal scoring, fan friendliness, competitive nature and its willingness to give young talent the chance to shine. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Much thanks goes to Uli Hesse for some of the ideas and information used in this article. Uli is a fantastic writer whose book, Tor, is a delightful but thorough guide to understanding German soccer and whose ESPN Soccernet columns are priceless. Raphael Honigstein is another fine writer on soccer in Germany whose columns can found on SportsIllustrated.com and on the Guardian site from the UK. English-language podcasts that feature plenty of Bundesliga talk include Dan Levy’s cheeky Bundesliga Podcast and the recently renamed Bundesliga Lounge, which always features great guests. The Bundesliga Fanatic is also another fine source of information and podcasts thanks to the contribution of the guys and gals who add a great deal of expertise and enthusiasm.