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May 31, 2005

Reasons to be cheerful

During the second-half of Saturday's Cup final, the TV commentator kept telling us we were watching a 'strange match'. I guess what he meant was that the first 45 minutes featured six or seven scoring opportunities, three goals (only two of which counted, though), two penalties (only one of which was given, though), some rough play, some lukewarm play-acting and a lot of shouting - while the second-half just petered out.

Bayern confidently conceded large parts of midfield to wait for an opponent who for some reason or other never showed up. Well, ok, there were reasons. Schalke had a) run out of gas, b) been scared brainless during the first period and c) couldn't set up their strikers because both need space and Bayern stood quite deep.

And so nothing much happened until Michael Ballack and Roy Makaay suddenly exploded, and then it was all over rather abruptly, as Schalke didn't have the nerves and the strength to come back. In other words, it was pretty much the whole season rolled into one match. It even highlighted this year's most conspicuous sub-plot, the referees, as the young man in charge of the final was first lauded as the 'new Markus Merk', then damned by both sides for his bizarre offside and penalty decisions.

But maybe that's what made it a strange game, because it's sure been a strange season. Oh, I'm not going to moan and groan now and call it a bad or boring season - that's already well and truly been taken care of by the press.

'Looking at the course of this season, you have to wonder why the procession of pilgrims to the grounds doesn't break off but even grows,' said a Berlin newspaper, marvelling at the fact the Bundesliga has set yet another attendance record. 'Sport-Bild' magazine chimed in, saying: 'As nice as the joy over the record of eleven million spectators is, the Bundesliga pretends a quality that may help carry TV revenue to extremes in 2006 but not to finally reach the final of the Champions League again. What's worse: German teams are second-rate on the European stage.'

OK, then. I have never been accused of mindlessly championing the Bundesliga and German football in general, and I never will. But a few words may be in order here to restore a semblance of sanity. First, whatever happens or fails to happen during a domestic league campaign offers little in the way of accurate predictions as to who will and who won't reach the final of the Champions League. I guess that much has been made abundantly clear by Liverpool's triumph just last week.

Second, not even totally embarrassing yourself on the European stage is too much of a yardstick. Yes, Bremen were beaten 7-2 at Lyon. Does this mean they are total rubbish and have no chance whatsoever in Europe? I can recall a club that lost 8-3 in last season's Champions League and then eliminated Juve and Milan to make the semis.

Four different clubs have won the Bundesliga in the past ten years. That's not much diversity, true, but it seems to be the norm for a big league on this continent.
Finally, the Bundesliga season just past may have ended as a pretty one-sided affair at the top of the heap, but that is a bit misleading. As late as early April, Bayern and Schalke were level on points and all the talk was of how Stuttgart, five points behind, were unbeatable since coach Matthias Sammer had decided to shut up shop and were rapidly gaining ground. But even if this hadn't been the case, even if Bayern had been running away with the trophy from day one, I would dare to say we should act a bit less self-accusing. Could it be that we're just a touch spoiled? Because most other countries think nothing of a two-horse race in which one contestant is limping a bit.

Four different clubs have won the Bundesliga in the past ten years. That's not much diversity, true, but it seems to be the norm for a big league on this continent. France offers six champions in that span, although it seems hard to believe, now that Lyon have won four times in a row. Spain had five different league winners, Italy and England both four, like Germany. (I know people who'd say that Blackburn and Chelsea don't count as real champions, but that's very nasty indeed.)

And while the fourteen-point margin between Bayern and Schalke looks hefty, it's no reason to fear the end of the world. Seven of the last ten Bundesliga campaigns weren't decided until the last or penultimate day of the season, and that's a good showing. Besides, Monaco were twelve points clear in 1997, Barcelona eleven in 1999, both Milan and Arsenal eleven again last year. That happens.

Also, and I know you have been waiting for this, my end-of-season goal chart says the Bundeliga is still your place of choice if you like to see a goal every half hour or so. We almost reached the mythical three-goal mark yet again, finishing with 2.91 goals per game. Spain is next, though lagging behind solidly (2.58), then follow England (2.57), Italy (2.53) and France, as always dead last, this time with a silly 2.17 goals per 90 minutes of football. This is the 15th time in a row the Bundesliga has won this particular contest among the big leagues in Europe, and maybe it explains why we keep setting attendance records even though our teams get beaten abroad.

Business as usual: Roy Makaay lifts the German cup for Bayern.
Business as usual: Roy Makaay lifts the German cup for Bayern.

But wait a minute. Didn't I say it was a strange season before going on to demonstrate to you how everything's fine and quite within the ordinary? Yes I did, because there was indeed one very strange aspect of this season, namely runs. Take Schalke. They could no longer contain Bayern only down the stretch, when they lost five of their last nine matches. That's bad, but now consider they had also lost four of their first six matches - and you get an idea of how well they have done in between.

Or take Stuttgart. They won six and drew one between late February and mid-April, including victories against Hertha, Bremen and Schalke. Next thing you know, they lose four of the last six, including silly defeats at Rostock and Bochum, both relegated. Talking of Rostock, they lost their first eight home games (!). Then they didn't lose another one all season, even though Schalke, Stuttgart and Hertha were among the opponents. Tss. Can't wait for next season.


  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.