Germans lead way in Euro zone
Has there ever been a European week like this for the Bundesliga?
More than a third of the entire league was involved - Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke in the Champions League plus Leverkusen, Monchengladbach, Hannover 96 and Stuttgart in the Europa League. This contingent came away with an almost perfect record: six wins and one scoreless draw. What's more, no fewer than five of those seven Bundesliga sides played away from home and none faced opposition you could really call lightweight.
Some of the victories took on almost historic dimensions. Schalke became the first non-English side to triumph at the Emirates Stadium (Inter's 3-0 in 2003 happened at Highbury), while Dortmund became the first team in four years to win a home game in the group stages against Real Madrid (Juventus had been the last to do it).
The Bundesliga last collected three Champions League wins in the same round of games on December 7 and 8, 2010, when Bayern beat Basel, Bremen defeated Inter and Schalke won at Benfica. However, there were no Europa League games that week.
That means you've got to go back quite far to find a precedent. In mid-October 2001, there were three Germans wins in the Champions League on the same matchday, but we had four teams in the competition back then and Schalke's defeat at Panathinaikos spoilt it.
We came close in 1999, because Leverkusen (at Maribor), Dortmund (against Boavista) and Hertha (against Chelsea) won their Champions League games on September 21 and 22, while Bayern drew with Rangers. But again there were no games in the sister competition (or should that be "poor cousin" competition?), which was then still called the UEFA Cup.
So maybe we have to go back all the way to September 16-18 in 1997. Over those three days, the three German teams in the Champions League collected three wins - Dortmund at Galatasaray, Bayern against Besiktas and Leverkusen against Lierse. In the Cup Winners' Cup, which was in its last ever season, Stuttgart won away at IBV from Iceland. And there were also three victories in the UEFA Cup: Schalke beat Hajduk Split, 1860 won at Finland's FC Jazz and Karlsruhe defeated Anorthosis Famagusta from Cyprus.
So that's seven wins, but I'm inclined to say it doesn't quite live up to the week just past. In part because there were some really small teams among the opposition; in part because there was another Bundesliga team, Bochum, and they succumbed to Trabzonspor at the Avni Aker Stadium in the club's first-ever UEFA Cup match. Even though Bochum would ultimately go through to the next round, a loss is a loss.
Anyway, as you can see, this European week was anything but normal, so one hesitates to imbue this string of good results with deeper meaning or relevance. Perhaps it was just the kind of coincidence that statistically has to happen one day.
But - whisper it - maybe it's really indicative of the long-awaited and predicted Bundesliga resurgence on the European stage. In the past ten seasons, only two German clubs have reached a European final (Bayern and Bremen) and that's clearly unacceptable.
I have called the resurgence "long-awaited and predicted" because our clubs have been saying for many years that they will sooner or later reap their just rewards for not spending more than they have as it's only a question of time until the ruinous system in Spain or Italy has to collapse like a house of cards. This belief was reinforced when UEFA president Michel Platini announced the so-called Financial Fair Play Regulations, which are supposed to penalise those clubs that, as Platini said, "have spent more than they have earned in the past and haven't paid their debts".
But when you have a look at the teams competing in the Champions League this season, it doesn't seem as if Financial Fair Play has levelled the playing field. In March, Qatari investors took over Paris Saint-Germain and proceeded to part with some €140 million within a few months, while Zenit Saint Petersburg bought Hulk and Alex Witsel for €90 million in early September.
And of course there are numerous other clubs currently competing in the Champions League that have been transformed practically overnight from also-rans to footballing glitterati. Manchester City and Malaga come to mind, even Shakhtar Donetsk with their eight Brazilian players, though in this case the sudden influx of money dates back some time.
In fact, Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is fiercely attacking the status quo in the most recent issue of the club magazine, saying that "there is financial doping in European football" and that "some clubs are entirely dependent on patronage". (He didn't say whether or not his damnation was sweeping enough to also include subsidised Bundesliga clubs like Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim.)
So it looks as if we are still some years away from reaping those rewards, whether or not they are just. How many years? Just last month, Bayern president Uli Hoeness said that the Bundesliga will "dominate the European game in ten years, provided Financial Fair Play is really put into practice". If he's right, there's a lot of waiting still to be done.
But if it isn't a levelled playing field that has boosted the Bundesliga's performance, what is it? Well, maybe having paid your dues. Needless to say, Dortmund's learning curve is quite pronounced, but there are also teams like Hannover 96 and Schalke, who managed to get a considerable amount of European games under their belt last season. I'm not a big friend of the Europa League (who is?), but its bloated and drawn-out schedule at least gives you plenty of practice under floodlights.
True, Leverkusen and Stuttgart weren't active in Europe last season, but the year before that they slogged through no less than 24 Europa League games between them. Dortmund, you may remember, also played eight Europa League games that season, while Schalke went all the way to the Champions League semi-finals.
Maybe it's true what they say: there is no substitute for gaining experience. Apart from buying it, of course.