There may be trouble ahead
It's kind of hard to believe, but the World Cup is only a distant memory and the new season is almost upon us. As much as we'd like to carry the summer euphoria into a long year of club football, there remain a few doubts regarding what the new campaign will bring.
For one, the majority of Germans who were partying in the streets during the World Cup - and even those singing at the grounds - were not your regular punters. Not the ones who are looking forward to seeing Wolfsburg take on Cottbus on a chilly November day. Not the ones who will applaud Aachen grinding out a scoreless draw at home against Schalke.
Second, as loveable and inviting as Germany presented itself in June and July, the best foreign football players, and at least one prominent homegrown one, have apparently failed to get the message. While the Bundesliga clubs did make a few name signings from abroad, we are talking about name signings by Bundesliga standards: the Brazilian Diego from Porto to Bremen, the Belgian Vincent Kompany from Anderlecht to Hamburg, the Swiss Alexander Frei from Rennes to Dortmund, the Dane Peter Lovenkrands from Rangers to Schalke.
The league's losses, however, are considerable: Zé Roberto and, of course, Michael Ballack left Bayern, Bremen's French playmaker Johan Micoud went back home, Dortmund's Czech duo of Tomas Rosicky and Jan Koller joined Arsenal and Monaco respectively, Leverkusen were forced to sell Dimitar Berbatov to Spurs, Hertha finally lost patience with the sometimes brilliant but often erratic Marcelinho, Schalke will have to make do without Christian Poulsen, lured away by the weather or whatever in Seville, and iconic Ebbe Sand - who finished his career after seven years in the Ruhr area.
Third, watching the games live on the telly could become a bit of a hassle for many fans, as a startup subscription channel, lamentably called Arena, first snatched up the rights from Premiere and then proceeded to make a mess of the whole thing. As we speak, many of my friends still have no idea how they can subscribe to Arena, what kind of equipment they will need - and what Arena actually has to offer besides football. The channel is so hopelessly behind schedule that its cable signal has to be carried by another station in large parts of the country. And that station is - Premiere.
What sounds funny, and probably is funny, creates huge problems for pubs and bars, many of which were hoping to cash in on the fact the World Cup made public viewing such an event. They will either have to dig deep into their pockets and subscribe to both channels, Premiere and Arena, or make a choice between the Bundesliga (Arena) and the Champions League (Premiere).
So, those were the gripes you have come to expect from your grumpy, jaded correspondent. Now on to the good signs.
None of the stars who've jumped various sinking ships in Italy have come to Germany, yet as Kicker magazine put it: 'The world-class players don't move to the Bundesliga. But maybe they are already here?' The magazine was referring to those players who have become if not international then at least national heroes during the World Cup, namely Klinsmann's kid contingent.
Only Ballack has deserted the league, and he'd done so before the tournament started. The World Cup's top scorer, Miroslav Klose, has stayed put, and the same goes for Lukas Podolski, voted the World Cup's best young player (an admittedly strange decision, but a trophy is a trophy) and the man whom Pelé considered the find of the summer, Philipp Lahm. They and their Germany team-mates can all count on warm receptions and perhaps even a bit of euphoria wherever they go over the next weeks.
Yes, the 2002 example of Oliver Kahn has shown that such a feel good-factor won't keep you warm for long - the ritualistic booing of the Bayern keeper was revived rather quickly despite his patriotic heroics in Asia - but the players will initially be cut some slack. Then it's up to them to keep the momentum alive. And this will primarily depend on some more thrills, not necessarily on the pitch but first and foremost in the standings.
The Bayern fans out there may forgive me, but we badly need some more competitiveness and a closer race among the top six. At the first glance, that doesn't seem too likely, considering Bayern have spent 20m Euros (a hefty sum by German yardsticks) to make things safe at the back - that means former Hamburg key player Daniel van Buyten - and add spice upfront - now we're talking Lukas Podolski from Cologne. Yet I do have my doubts about this new Bayern side. That's because I belong to the one half of the German population who thinks that Ballack is a fantastic player and that they will sorely miss him in Munich.
Of course, the other half of the German population thinks that Ballack is vastly overrated and supports coach Felix Magath's assertion that Bayern's game 'will be more flexible and perhaps even more attractive' without him. We will see. But even if Magath is right and his team can compensate for the loss of Ballack, they should have a rougher ride this time around.
One reason is that, after two league and Cup doubles in a row there is going to be pressure from upstairs to finally deliver on the European stage, a situation similar to that in 2000-01, when Ottmar Hitzfeld quite openly decided to focus on the Champions League and Bayern lost a silly nine Bundesliga games.
The other reason is that Werder Bremen look really solid, even more than that if they should manage to grab Per Mertesacker from Hannover. As of yet, the transfer hinges on Werder's defender Frank Fahrenhorst, who's unwilling to let himself be thrown into the deal. But there's still a few days left before the Bundesliga is back.
Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.