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May 23, 2013

Germany continue reign in Europe

What a difference a final makes.

It was almost exactly 10 years ago, in May 2003, that I first wrote an end-of-Bundesliga-season column for this website. It was also the first time that I brought up the magic numbers: the goals-per-game ratio. It has since become such a trusted staple that some readers told me they only consider the league season really over when said figures finally flicker across their screens.

What happened 10 years ago was that I saw a stat that said the Bundesliga had produced more goals per game than the other major leagues -- at the time that meant England, Spain, Italy and France -- for the 12th year in a row. It was this "12 years running" bit that intrigued me, because I couldn't come up with a reasonable explanation for it.

As the streak never stopped during the following 10 years, I have heard, read and brought forth myself many theories about why there are more goals per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga -- year in, year out -- despite all the ups and downs and changes and fluctuations you have to expect.

But that's not the point in the present day. The point is why I brought up the magic numbers in the first place. Yes, over the years it has turned into a bit of a tradition, a custom one should honour, but of course that wasn't the initial motivation.

Only one year after I'd introduced those Comparative Studies in Goals, I wrote: "I admit that I love dredging up these stats every May or June because we don't have much else going for us, at least no shiny European trophies or flashy international stars." Said column was published on June 21, 2004, and it carried the title "Bundesliga still the best?" That was meant ironically.

You have to remember that our football was at its lowest ebb at that time, less than a decade ago. An overaged Germany team had played another disastrous European Championship, we didn't have a national coach (Rudi Voller having stepped down) and we practically didn't have a team for a World Cup on home soil that was only two years away.

In club football, meanwhile, the outlook was just as gloomy. There was no Bundesliga club in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

And after Dortmund went out against Sochaux and Schalke against Brondby, we didn't even have a single team in the third round -- the third round! -- of the UEFA Cup.

Trust me, back then it wasn't easy getting a non-German audience even interested in the Bundesliga. Hence my fondness for the magic numbers.

The new La Liga?

But how different things are now! There has hardly been a day since the Champions League semifinals were played that I wasn't asked to speak or write about whether Germany is now the pre-eminent power in European football or if the Bundesliga will become "the new La Liga," the next trendy thing.

Obviously, these are questions you cannot answer. If Dortmund hadn't scored those two crazy goals in stoppage time against Malaga, we would have had only one team in the Champions League semis and none in the Europa League quarterfinals. Hardly "pre-eminent power" material.

I'm not saying Dortmund don't deserve to be in the final, quite the contrary, it's just that the stuff people tend to measure success by, namely results and trophies, often hinge on many little things. Just think how easily Bayern could have won the Champions League last year. (Or, for that matter, in 2010.)

So, if you measure pre-eminence and attractiveness solely by games won or lost, you'd have to predict that the Bundesliga's strength won't last.

Yes, Bayern will be the team you have to beat if you want to win the Champions League for quite some time. But they have obviously already been that in the past few years. Dortmund will lose a few key players, but they should continue being among the top eight or 16 teams on the continent. But at the moment there's no third German side that seems likely to continually join those two.

Finally, clubs such as Manchester United, Real or Barcelona will certainly bounce back and there could even be an Italian renaissance around the corner, so a German dominance in European club football is highly unlikely.

But there are so many other things you can measure success by, starting with the number of goals teams score over 90 minutes. There is attendance, for instance. Or fan-friendliness. Or financial stability. Or the number of homegrown talents. Or competitiveness.

In all these areas, the Bundesliga has undeniably been the No. 1 league in Europe, perhaps the world, for quite a number of years now. No wonder there are so many people from abroad coming to Germany just for the matchday experience.

Money talks

Then there's hard cash. For a long time, Bundesliga clubs were unable to compete with their European rivals in the money market, partly because we don't have rich owners who pump millions into their teams, partly because our television contracts, thanks to collective bargaining, are less lucrative for the top clubs. Mainly, though, because of foreign rights. Three years ago, for instance, the Premier League earned almost £480m from foreign TV rights alone. The Bundesliga? £35m.

And this is the one area where things do seem about to change in a big way. UEFA's Financial Fair Play scheme, provided it's really put into place, will strongly favour the German clubs, as UEFA basically intends to create a control system that has been in place in Germany for decades. Plus, the foreign rights are a potential gold mine. "Our total figures are still not huge," a high-ranking club official recently told me. "But the growth figures are phenomenal, especially in Asia." (North America, though, will remain a problem, I suppose. For obvious reasons, U.S. television will always be partial to English - and Spanish-speaking countries.)

So, is the Bundesliga going to be the new superpower? In regards to silverware, not in the near future. In regards to many other elements, however, it already has been the superpower for a number of years.

The real question is how well the Bundesliga uses the chances that have opened up over the course of this amazing Champions League season. If the clubs act smartly, handle the newfound interest well and don't ruin their own product, you can pose the superpower question again in, say, five years.

The magic numbers

Oh, I almost forgot the most recent figures!

In the season just past, the Bundesliga produced on average 2.93 goals per game. Teams from the English Premier League scored 2.80 goals; Italy's Serie A had only 2.64 goals per match.

The other two big leagues haven't yet wrapped up the 2012-13 season. But with only one matchday left, France's Ligue 1 stands at a habitually silly 2.56 goals per game. It means the French will in all likelihood finish last in this particular competition yet again.

That leaves Spain. For all the unprecedented goal-scoring heroics delivered by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Primera Division has so far produced no more than 2.85 goals per game. You'd think the difference between that and the Bundesliga isn't huge (0.08 goals), but in order to catch the Germans, the Spanish will have to score no fewer than 88 goals on the final two matchdays.

If Spain cannot pull off this unlikely feat, the Bundesliga will have extended its uncanny run of outscoring the competition to an incredible 23 years, almost a quarter of a century. Wow.

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