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Dec 15, 2012

The winter break debate

I attended my first Bundesliga game on January 29, 1977. I don't think it was particularly cold on that day and I can recall neither snow nor rain. What I do remember is that the pitch was in an awful state, muddy and bumpy - which wasn't really a surprise.

We were already three matchdays into the second half of the season, as the winter break had lasted just 35 days for most teams - in other words, exactly the same as this season, underlining the trend that we are slowly returning to what was normal during my youth, after decades of fairly long winter breaks.

The record is still held by the 1986-87 season, when play was halted for 77 days. Ten years later, during the 1996-97 campaign, the winter break still lasted for 70 days, but by 2006-07 it was down to 42 days. Only one year later, the league and the German FA announced that the winter break would be cut even further, and drastically so. In 2009-2010, they said, play would resume after only 28 days to give the national team plenty of time to prepare for the World Cup after the end of the season.

Ever since, there have been complaints. "It's silly that we don't play between mid-May and mid-August," Eintracht Frankfurt CEO Heribert Bruchhagen said in late 2010. "May and June are the best times for football. I don't like the fact that we have to finish the season so early because of the international match calendar."

However, when the league went into that mammoth break in December 1986, the influential Kicker editor Karl-Heinz Heimann sounded warning words precisely because a long winter break meant a short summer break: "There will be little time next summer to catch some breath. It means, among other things, that there won't be time for more than a two-week holiday between seasons. This is a very short time for athletes to recharge the batteries."

It is often said that a major reason why we introduced extensive winter breaks in the first place were events of 43 years ago. In the old days, football stopped only briefly over the festive season. Bayern Munich, for instance, played a crucial game against Eintracht Frankfurt on January 1, 1928, an important match at Offenbach in the Oberliga South on January 3, 1954 and a big Cup game against Borussia Dortmund on January 2, 1966.

But then came the 1969-70 season. It was always expected to be a rather haphazard affair on account of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, which was to start quite early on May 31. When the German FA published the fixture list in late June 1969, it covered only the first half of the season. "If the national team qualifies for Mexico, the season will end at the beginning of May, otherwise on May 30," said the statement.

West Germany then beat Scotland to qualify for the World Cup, and so the German FA made the remainder of the fixture list public in early November 1969. The second half of the season was to begin on January 10, 1970, the Cup quarter-finals were scheduled for late March, the semis for April 8 and the final for May 12 or May 16.

None of this happened.

The whole of central Europe was hit by an unusually harsh winter. On New Year's Eve, the temperature fell to -17°C in Berlin and six days later 31 centimetres of snow covered the city. At 22:00 on Thursday January 8, the German FA's man in charge of the fixture list, Walter Baresel, finally called off the entire first matchday of the second half of the season. One week later, he called off an additional six games.

"The worst thing," Baresel said, "is that we have to finish the season on May 2. Because of the World Cup we cannot postpone it. What now? Winter has only begun."

These were prophetic words, as Berlin would be covered in snow until mid-March. In January alone, 37 Bundesliga games fell victim to the elements.

The constant reshuffling led to some strange fixture pile-ups. There were nine days in late April during which Rot-Weiss Essen played four Bundesliga games - all of them at home. The only reason the Bundesliga finished on time at all was that the Cup rounds were unceremoniously scrapped.

It meant that the final games of the 1969-70 Cup competiton were played during the first weeks of the 1970-71 season and that it was won by a team, Kickers Offenbach, that was technically a second-divison side even though it was playing in the Bundesliga by the time the final at last took place on August 29.

But this chaos did not lead to change. While there were more and more people in 1970 who called for a proper winter break, the majority thought along the lines of the journalist Ben Harder, who wrote in his yearbook: "We don't think that the Bundesliga needs the general winter break many people now call for, because nobody has the clairvoyance to predict the exact moment when winter conditions truly threaten the game. This may be in December, or maybe when March turns into April. What we simply need is flexible scheduling with enough open dates for rearranged fixtures."

So at first nothing changed. Four years later, the season had to end early again because there was another World Cup, this time on home soil. And so the second half of the season kicked off as early as January 5, but this time there were no major problems as the weather played along. (At least until the World Cup began, which was a wet and cold affair.)

It wasn't until the 1980s that we really began to experiment with winter breaks that were truly breaks instead of just prolonged Christmas holidays. In 1982-83, the recess lasted for more than 40 days for the first time in history. Two years later, in 1984-85, the pause finally broke the 50-day mark and reached into February for the first time. Then it was extended to well over 70 days.

This was mainly due to pressure from the Bundesliga coaches and club executives. A major topic around that time, the early 80s, was the game's plummeting popularity. Business managers like Bayern's Uli Hoeness, an advocate of a long winter break, pointed out that "you cannot have a good game on ice and snow", implying one shouldn't be surprised that attendances were dropping if games were played under unhospitable conditions.

The coaches, meanwhile, felt that having the players go through a whole season - and then more often than not a big tournament - without any proper rest was courting disaster, and would lead to more injuries and burned-out players. In fact, when the club coaches met with then-national coach Franz Beckenbauer in February 1985 to discuss the state of things, the Kaiser presented an even more revolutionary plan than a long winter break: "Let's get rid of the summer break," he said.

Beckenbauer's plan was for Germany to emulate those Scandinavian countries where the season follows the calendar year and lasts from March to December. "The big international tournaments are staged during the summer, " he added, "and the national team would be in excellent shape at that time because the players will all be in mid-season form."

The Bundesliga coaches liked the idea and applauded Beckenbauer loudly. But at one point they must have realised that what was good for the national team wasn't always good for the clubs. At least not for those clubs who were regularly active in Europe, because they would have to contest the quarter-finals, usually played in March, during their pre-season preparations.

As if to prove that football, like life, follows a cycle, the second winter after the switch to a really long break, 1988-89, was the mildest on record at that time. The last snow fell in mid-December and on January 14 the temperature reached double digits. On February 8 it was 13°C. But there wouldn't be football for another ten days. As the magazine Stern quipped: "The bozos at the German FA have their winter break when the winter takes a break."

It goes to show that winter breaks are like pants you try on - they are either too short or too long, never just right.

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