It starts about half an hour before the game. A low rumble which slowly builds into a crescendo of thousands of voices orchestrated into unison. And then it goes on, throughout the 90 minutes, through the lashing rain, the biting cold and the uncertain sunshine, irrespective of the scoreline. It’s the sound of unrelenting football fans - their passion - their support - their loyalty and their reluctance to let go of their place in a sport that is rapidly becoming less about fans and more about money.
Bayer Leverkusen were 3-0 down at Borussia Dortmund around the hour mark in a crunch Champions League qualification game in the Bundesliga, but the away fans didn’t lose their voice. Two fans, with megaphones, shirts whipped off, stood at precipice of the away end and the pitch, acting as pied pipers who simply refused to let the voice of their legion drown in the backdrop of one of the most daunting stadiums in Europe.
This is the norm in German football. This is the personification of the Bundesliga’s slogan - “football as it’s meant to be.” It is, as Bundesliga International’s marketing manager Maurice Gorges put in a freewheeling chat with Indian journalists, called an “honest league which is not just for the rich and where the fans are not just spectators.”
But the Bundesliga stands at an odd juncture. On the one hand, it prides itself on being “sustainable, stable and prudent.” It is, quite easily, the league in which fans have the most say. The “50+1” rule means members of the club retain majority voting rights, and acts as a buffer against ruthless private investors, the likes of which have swept away English Premier League clubs. So while the Bundesliga prides itself on placing their fans first and foremost, it is also imperative that they get international exposure through new broadcast and commercial deals to compete with the money-spinning might of the Premier League and La Liga.
The battle between the fan, the money and creating a league atmosphere which is responsible for the supply-line of the reigning world champions is being played out very interestingly in Germany. What adds to the drama is the undoubted monopoly of Bayern Munich, allowing people to call the Bundesliga a “one-horse race”. It’s crass but probably fair - given that Bayern have won six league titles in a row and 14 since the turn of the millenium.
"Here, it is more difficult. In England, it's special because it's so tough,” former Bayern Munich and Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola said after leading his current club Manchester City to the Premier League. Guardiola is known to underplay his achievements, but it’s pretty evident that winning in Spain and Germany is easier than in England. It is the uncertainty which makes the Premier League so special, so widely watched and so expensive.
How then, can the Bundesliga maintain its immaculate fan culture and compete with global television rights while armed with a league whose winner is sometimes decided as early as March? This is not a question that has escaped clubs and officials in the country - and it is for this very reason that doors were partly and cautiously opened to investors - but only in 1998.
“The league never cared for internationalisation early on. Right now, the goal is to make it a global league with local players. So that even 20-30 years down the line, our clubs will still survive. Ironically, not many investors in other leagues are interested for such a long period of time,” Gorges said.
Oddly enough, clubs realise this issue - but at the same time, are remarkably loyal to their fans as well - and against foreign investors making a mockery of the sport.
“You talk about the Premier League - about The Etihad and The Emirates. But these are theatres, not football stadiums. We care a lot about the wellbeing of supporters. Whatever we do, should reach the people here. The Premier League is commercially driven. But here, we look for stories, not for money,” said Carsten Cramer, CMO of Borussia Dortmund - admitting to the issue but also providing an answer as to why most German clubs don’t consider internationalisation of the league as a priority. The reason is simple - the more the popularisation, the less the connect with local fans and players.
Instead, the Bundesliga’s popularity heavily depends on the national team’s success as well. Cramer gave an example of how there was a spike in the interest in Dortmund when their youth academy product Mario Gotze scored the winner at the 2014 World Cup final.
This could be the flipside of not having a highly commercially driven league that leads clubs in Germany to take a punt on youngsters and develop them into world class players. The Dortmund vs Leverkusen match also saw 18-year-old English winger Jadon Sancho score a goal and provide two assists in what was a startling example of a promising Manchester City player being unleashed in Germany at the highest level. On being asked whether Premier League youth products had a better chance in the Bundesliga to succeed, then Dortmund manager Peter Stoger admitted that Sancho’s “prospects are probably better here than in the Premier League.”
The average age of players in the Bundesliga last season was 25.4 and the rise in investment on academies is massive. Their report says that 163.41 million Euros were invested in academies last season, taking the total to 1.39 billion Euros since 2002. Investment in academies in 2012-13 was a 121% rise compared to 2002-03. Investment in academies in 2016-17 was a 54% rise since 2012-13.
These numbers were certainly spurred due to the sweeping changes that German football went through after their agonising Euro 2000 group stage exit. A similar coaching system overhaul happened in England in 2012 (Elite Player Performance Plan) and they won both the U20 and U17 World Cups last year as a result of that. Englishman Tim Kirk, who is now a coach with Borussia Dortmund’s youth academy, is perfectly positioned to understand why the Premier League’s success doesn’t transfer to the English national side.
“England’s youngsters are doing really well but they get to a point and then there’s this cork in the bottle. That’s partly down to money and culture - the ability to buy anyone you want with clubs pumping in billions, there’s less motivation to give kids a chance. The focus in Germany is more on producing world beating talent than buying it,” the 40-year-old said.
But make no mistake about their financial might - this is not about that - German football, for the first time, broke past the 4 billion Euro aggregate revenue mark last season. Even though their transfer spend is less than half that of the Premier League, the question that Bundesliga honchos are asking is not how to make money but how to make the league more popular across the world. The common consensus here is that being rich goes hand in hand with being popular. At the same time, clubs in England certainly know what the other side of the coin looks like when it comes to private investors pulling the plug on their clubs, leaving cities and towns in limbo and their teams in freefall.
“It is suggested that commercially driven leagues also lead to more excitement and more competition. I don’t agree with that. For me, football is primarily still about the sport itself. Money is only secondary. For me a football game is about passion and emotions that money can’t buy. The focus on the football fans is what makes the Bundesliga special. The density of well-organized football clubs in the Bundesliga is definitely higher than in other leagues because they focus on financial sustainability. Reckless commercially driven leagues will in fact destroy excitement. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be commercialisation at all but it has to be down to earth and authentic to keep the character of football,” said Frederik Deters, who was part of Bundesliga club Werder Bremen’s youth system from 2003-2005.
That character also involves keeping the game accessible for people to watch at stadiums. When UEFA launched its latest benchmark report, the Premier League was found to be at least 40% more expensive a league to attend. The Bundesliga was third, behind La Liga, but ahead of Spain in terms of revenue. A Premier League club also spends more than double the player wage amount compared to Bundesliga.
The standing stands in the Bundesliga could be re-adopted in England very soon, and that may create cheaper ticket allocations in the Premier League, but until then, it does remain a spectacle that is quickly evaporating from the reach of the masses. The German FA (DFB) will not let that happen in the Bundesliga.
Christian Seifert, CEO of DFL, said in their published report that “one of the biggest and most important challenges is to reinvest in sporting quality and increased sporting success.” There is no doubt that the Germany will achieve that objective, but it still won’t stop the media and other well-wishers to think about how it can get more competitive. Like this DW article points out, there are various plans to decrease the gap with Bayern Munich, but as their former manager Jupp Heynckes said, reforms won’t do it.
“Reforms? No, they'll have to think of something else. The others just need to get stronger."
Former Bayern Munich captain Stefan Effenberg has already suggested an alternative format for the Bundesliga but a more realistic approach to reducing the disparity and increasing competition will be to take a look at TV deals and a possible rethink of the 50+1 rule. Lastly, clubs below Bayern need to get wilier, and smarter when it comes to their selling culture.
At the end of the day, it is simply unfair for a league of such immense quality to not be seen around the world because it is deemed predictable. But just like all the other great things about the Bundesliga, the show-runners will know that even unpredictability cannot be bought by money."The reporter was in Germany as part of Bundesliga experiential organised by Star Sports Select."