Going up, coming down?
All the signs are that 1860 Munich will get relegated, thereby validating my pre-season prediction.
They have lost four games in a row now and their star striker Benjamin Lauth is out for the rest of the season.
Their next game is at Leverkusen, who have collected 17 points from their last seven games and are on such an uncanny roll that even the Brazilian Franca and the Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov are scoring at will after Bayer's fans had been ready and willing to give up on them for good.
But there is still a reason for 1860 to hope that everything will turn out well and that Kaiserslautern, Gladbach or Hannover will suffer the drop instead. (Hertha are out of the equation, as we shall see.) That reason goes by the name of stats.
1860 are in their tenth consecutive Bundesliga season. They are an established top flight club and established clubs don't get relegated of late.
You may protest and say that's nothing new, that we all know that newly-promoted teams have to fight hardest for survival, that established clubs can bank on their head start and better squads and so on.
Yet when you have a closer look at the past ten years of the Bundesliga paternoster, you'll find a time when it was quite different, when people you wouldn't expect to stepped off the lift, while complete strangers got on to move upwards.
In the six years between 1993 and 1999, Frankfurt, Kaiserslautern and Cologne went down, who had all been playing in the Bundesliga since its inception in 1963. Gladbach went down, having been in the top flight since 1965. Bochum went down, a Bundesliga mainstay since 1971.
In other words: almost a third of the relegated teams in that period had suffered the drop after more than at least twenty years in the establishment.
We can go beyond a third by lowering the criteria for 'established' to about a decade and include Nuremberg, relegated in 1994 after nine seasons with the big boys, and Karlsruhe, gone down in 1998 after eleven years in the sun. (You'll see in a minute why I dragged them in so unelegantly.)
|“||Should Nuremberg, Bielefeld and Cottbus really manage to bounce back as a trio, it will be a historic first. ”|
Between 1994 and 1999, there were no less than four teams that got promoted to the Bundesliga directly after having come up from the regional third divisions - they walked right through the Second Bundesliga with a song on their lips while teams that had been labouring there for years and years looked on in wonder. (Unterhaching could have become the fifth such club, but they blew their chances on the penultimate day of the 1995/96 season by losing to a 90th minute goal at Leipzig amid crowd trouble. Generously, the club decided not to file a protest and was promoted three years later.)
But as the new century dawned, things changed yet again. In the past four seasons, the record for consecutive Bundesliga seasons for a relegated side stood at a meagre four (Duisburg in 2000, Freiburg in 2002).
This year, there's a good chance that two of the newcomers will directly go down again, while all three teams that were relegated last season will be back come the summer. It's beginning to look as if the promoted and demoted teams are being recruited from a pool of clubs that is only half a dozen names strong.
Again: one will instinctively say that it's always been roughly like this, that demoted teams have a good chance of immediately going up again, that promoted teams are very likely to immediately go down again.
Yet the facts don't bear it out. Should Nuremberg, Bielefeld and Cottbus really manage to bounce back as a trio, it will be a historic first. Never before have all three relegated clubs topped the Second Bundesliga at the end of a season. And while the past has seen three years where as you'd expect all three promoted clubs couldn't survive their first Bundesliga season, there have been twice as many instances when all three of them managed to stay up.
All of this may support a theory brought forth in the wake of the Bosman ruling. This theory says that the Bundesliga went though a bit of a chaos in its first years there were seven different champions in the first seven seasons, one even got relegated the year after winning the league.
Then followed a long period of stability (meaning: Bayern won) that was nonetheless flexible enough to regularly allow, say, one of the three new teams a good chance of establishing itself and, given some time, becoming competitive: Dortmund (1976), Leverkusen (1979), Bremen (1981), Karlsruhe (1987), Schalke (1991).
Then came the era of rampant commercialism, insane tv money and above all the Bosman ruling. The theory says this made everything go haywire, while the cards had to be reshuffled. Suddenly, your trumps (a large fan base and a calm boardroom) meant little anymore and only money ruled, which also led to the problem that only one or two lean years and a little time spent away from the fleshpots saw you outdistanced for good.
The theory closes with the assertion that once new hands have been properly dealt, there will be a new era of stability, one more rigid than before. Well, we may have entered it, if the stats are to be interpreted that way.
At 1860, they will hope the theory holds true. But if you have a look at their neighbours, you'll get some food for thought. The main reason why Nuremberg and Karlsruhe fell from grace in the 1990s was not the Bosman ruling, but that they had been bled dry by Bayern. The Munich giants bought more than half of Karlsruhe's promising team (Kahn, Scholl, Kreuzer, Sternkopf, Tarnat, Fink) and the core of the great young Nuremberg side (Reuter, Schwabl, Grahammer, Dorfner).
And that happened in the good old days, the late 1980s and early 1990s.
So, maybe stats are indeed meaningless figures. We'll see.