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Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke struggle to be German football's third-best club

Bayer Leverkusen appear well-placed to rival Bayern and Dortmund, but have the air of being a steppingstone club.

As Uli Hesse's masterful new book, "Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub," reminds us, Bayern Munich's dominance of the Bundesliga can be seen as the ultimate revenge act. Deemed not relevant enough to be included when the German top flight was set up in 1963, the Bavarians have been hell-bent on rendering the whole league irrelevant in recent times, winning 25 of the last 48 championships.

The history of league competition is one of a series of duels between Bayern and various clubs with transient success; the former have always emerged victorious in the long run, while the opposition has faltered. Schalke, Borussia Monchengladbach, Hamburger SV, Bremen, Köln, Kaiserslautern and Bayer Leverkusen all challenged the record titleholders' supremacy for a spell or two, but ultimately couldn't keep up with Bayern's money-making capabilities.

This year, Borussia Dortmund have a realistic chance of preventing a fifth consecutive league title for Bayern, led by manager Carlo Ancelotti, who in July succeeded Pep Guardiola. A third championship in seven seasons would underline Dortmund's position as Bayern's only serious domestic rival at present, while also cementing Dortmund as the longest-lasting second power in the German first division since Borussia Monchengladbach ran freely 40 years ago.

Despite a small blip in 2014-15, and with roughly half the annual income of Bayern (player sales excluded), Dortmund's staying power is testament to their highly intelligent use of available resources. But for the rest of the Bundesliga, BVB's ascent to undisputed "vice champion" of German football in the current decade has been almost as demoralising as Bayern's hoarding of silverware. The lack of a third genuine superpower has arguably been the league's greatest deficit.

While the importance of competitiveness is often exaggerated -- consumer research suggests that people are interested in clubs, not leagues per se -- there's no doubt that a third Bundesliga team with global resonance would hugely benefit both the league's brand and the competition itself. But who has both the clout and the know-how to break the duopoly?

Ironically, the clubs that are best-placed to do so, on paper, seem as far away from doing so in reality as ever. VfB Stuttgart, for example, were champions in 2006-07 and are based in a wealthy city with hundreds of thousands of fans in surrounding areas. But Stuttgart are currently fighting their way back from the second division after suffering a meltdown last season. For some reason, the Swabians have never managed to build on past success (they also won the league in 1984 and 1992) and consolidate their place at the top.

By contrast, Schalke have been vainly chasing a first-ever Bundesliga title for over 50 years now, but in mitigation, they've rarely left the top third while doing so. The Royal Blues have almost exactly the same setup as local rivals Dortmund in terms of size, stadium noise, fan loyalty and regional-to-national cachet, but they haven't come close to Borussia's success since 2010.

A series of duds as managers and unimaginative transfer dealings have been Schalke's biggest problems, coupled with a notoriously restive environment at the boardroom level. New sporting director Christian Heidel, the man who gave Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel their respective breaks at Mainz 05, will surely bring much-needed professionalism to the role, but the necessary reforms will not take place overnight.

Heidel has set up an entirely new scouting network and invested heavily in upgrading the dated training ground infrastructure. Heidel hired Markus Weinzierl, a head coach with a pronounced idea of collective tactics. The 41-year-old will need more time, though, as proved by a disappointing start to the season, with five defeats in six games.

Christian Heidel is tasked with reviving and restoring Schalke, but this season has been tough so far.

It won't be easy to get a rather technical and individualistic Schalke team to work as hard off the ball as FC Augsburg did under Weinzierl. Whether the relatively quiet coach can really fire up his players and infect the whole club with enthusiasm for a new regime -- as Klopp was able to do at Dortmund -- remains to be seen. Chances are Schalke will need a bit longer to truly right their ship, especially in an age when second-tier teams are constantly in danger of losing their best players to domestic and international competition. The fiercely talented Leroy Sané, sold for €50 million to Manchester City in the summer, won't be part of their revolution.

Any hopes of Hamburger SV resuming its rightful position at the top of the German tree will also go unfulfilled for a few more years. The northerners' continued inability to use untold potential in all areas has been one of the Bundesliga's greatest tragedies of the past 30 years. HSV, a true powerhouse of European football in the early 1980s, remain heavily in debt, rudderless and dependent on a wealthy benefactor with no discernible football expertise.

While Werder Bremen are scarcely better off, Borussia Monchengladbach are undergoing a renaissance based on prudence and sporting success. But manager Andre Schubert's Gladbach side are yet to show that they turn their comeback into long-term growth. A business model based on transience -- they need to sell in order to reinvest -- complicates matters.

These big traditional clubs have woken up almost too late to the challenges of modern, commercial football and the next step: globalisation. The Bundesliga's restrictive investment regime has made progress more difficult. In order to grow organically, as Dortmund have, you need to get nearly everything right, as there's no cushion provided by external finance.

The void these clubs have left has to some extent been taken up by the small group of corporate-backed clubs that Bundesliga regulations allow by way of exception. Leverkusen (and to a lesser extent Wolfsburg) have spent their parent companies' wealth well enough to leave some of the big beasts in their wake.

Newly promoted RB Leipzig, guided by sporting director Ralf Rangnick and coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, look well-placed to join their ranks. These clubs, however, have a tougher time creating the special bond between players, team and host city that the heavyweights take almost for granted. Leverkusen, for example, are incredibly well-run and stacked with talent, and have developed a clear playing identity. Yet the suspicion remains that many players see them merely as a steppingstone to greater things.

You can have success regardless, but a budding "superclub" needs more: emotions, passion, a sense of belonging. Right now, only Bayern and Dortmund tick all the boxes.

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein


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