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Serie A season preview: AS Roma

AS Roma 2 hours ago
Read
Apr 27, 2013

How to ruin a party

I was there when Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 won the Champions League and the UEFA Cup only seven days apart, back in 1997. And I was desperately trying to meet deadlines in late October 2000, when the Christoph Daum cocaine scandal blew wide open, plunging the domestic game into a major crisis and triggering an absurd media frenzy. Finally, I still remember the howls of protest that went up (in either camp) when Manuel Neuer, a Gelsenkirchen boy and Schalke's brightest hope for the future, announced his move to Bayern Munich in 2011.

But somehow it all pales in comparison. There's never been a week like this in German football. Not least because this one condensed almost all of the aspects listed above - and then some - in a mere handful of days. It also proved once more that there is a vast discrepancy between the view from the inside and how you are viewed from the outside.

Of course both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund did amazingly well in their respective Champions League games and the eventual scorelines were breathtaking. Yet neither performance was quite as unexpected as some of the foreign media coverage would have you believe.

Bayern Munich have been the best team in Europe for almost the entire duration of this season, full stop. Borussia Dortmund, meanwhile, are still unbeaten in the Champions League and have already proved that they can more than just hold their own against Real.

Both the Uli Hoeness tax scandal and the news of Mario Götze's move to the Munich giants were much more stunning. They were two heavy blows that nobody saw coming and which may have a stronger impact on the German game than whatever happens in the Champions League semis.

Yet none of the foreign journalists who called me during this week - writers and radio reporters from Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and England - even mentioned these subjects. All they wanted to talk about was the German youth set-up, the competitiveness of the Bundesliga, the terraces, the reasonable ticket prices, the great players and the attacking football, Jürgen Klopp's charisma and Jupp Heynckes' legacy for Pep Guardiola, the amazing fans and the unique atmosphere at our grounds.

It's almost as if nobody had noticed any of this before. As if nobody had picked up the issue of World Soccer magazine that went on sale on April 12. The cover announced that "The World's Best League" would be revealed inside, as determined by a global survey in which leagues were awarded points for various criteria, from goals, finances and attendances to competitiveness, stars and stadia. First place went to the Bundesliga.

Yet it seems that it has taken eight goals under midweek floodlights to finally hammer home the fact that the balance of power has shifted - away from the leagues that have wasted money in an almost obscene manner, deluded by a blind belief in the star system, to a league that puts football first, the fans second, money third.

Or does it? Has it ever?

Because, ironically, many of the attractive elements which the world has suddenly discovered about Germany have been controversially debated over the course of this season in the country itself. For instance, various fan protests have been staged in an attempt to fight rising ticket prices. And only six or seven months ago, there were thinly veiled threats from the powers that be to abolish terracing.

It was somehow fitting, then, that the week that produced the biggest triumph for the Bundesliga in recent memory would also be the week in which we finally started talking about money, the week in which the name of the game was not brilliance but disillusion.

It's difficult to explain to a non-German how massive the Hoeness story is. For all practical purposes, the man is Bayern Munich and has been Bayern Munich for at least 34 years, ever since he became the club's business manager and made Bayern into what they are today.

There are countries, let's not mention names, where tax fraud is almost a prerequisite to be trusted with the running of a club. Germany, however, is not one of them. In addition, Hoeness has always gone to great lengths to present himself as tough and rigorous but also fair and ethical. He has helped many in need, both individuals and institutions, even ailing football clubs. He is a major reason why many people say they dislike Bayern but can respect them.

But since last Saturday, when a German magazine broke the story that Hoeness reported himself to the tax authorities back in January in a desperate but probably futile attempt to prevent a criminal investigation, Hoeness has to live with being called a crook to his face.

That's bad enough, but it got worse in a hurry. Only a day later, it was revealed that the money Hoeness has been hiding in a Swiss bank account can be traced back to a considerable, well, gift (€20 million in all) he received in 2000 from the French businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus.

At the time, Louis-Dreyfus was the CEO of Adidas, the company that would soon buy a 10% share in Bayern Munich. It's still way too early to say what all this means - and maybe this aspect of the whole sorry affair is relatively harmless, though it takes some imagination to find a simple explanation - but it casts a poor light on the biggest club in the land and the most powerful man in German football.

Another day later, the next bombshell was dropped. Somehow the country's most notorious tabloid got wind of the fact that Bayern had agreed to a deal with Dortmund's budding superstar Götze and would activate a get-out clause in the summer. That this story got leaked on the day before Dortmund met Real Madrid and only two days after the Hoeness scandal broke has given rise to a popular and widespread conspiracy theory. The gist is that someone in the Bayern camp informed the press to deflect attention from Hoeness and cause unrest at rivals Dortmund.

Perhaps we'll never find out who did what and why, but the fact is that the mood is suddenly poisoned. Bayern, who have worked hard - and quite successfully, it has to be said - to fight the negative image they had during the 80s and large parts of the 90s, who often spoke in favour of collective bargaining when they could've easily struck their own deals and who loudly cried out for financial fair play are suddenly seen as the league's ogre again, using their financial muscle to lure talents away from other clubs and trying to stifle the very competiveness foreigners like about the Bundesliga.

Because we're not just talking about Dortmund's Götze or Robert Lewandowski or Mats Hummels, all of whom have been linked with Bayern in the past four days. On Thursday, Eintracht Frankfurt chairman Heribert Bruchhagen told a reporter: "Why is Jan Kirchhoff joining Bayern? Why Sebastian Rode? My God, these are young lads. They can earn a lot more money there. Over and out. That's the way it is." That Bayern had signed the 23-year old Kirchhoff from Mainz was public knowledge, but Frankfurt's promising midfielder Rode, too?

It makes you wonder where all these young men are supposed to play, given that Bayern's squad is not exactly lacking depth or big names, and whether it wouldn't be better if such talents stay at a club where they see action on a regular basis. Better for the league as a whole, that is.

These are tumultuous, momentous and crucial times for the Bundesliga. And Barcelona and Real, the Champions League and Wembley have little to do with it.

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