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The new Gladbach?

When I started following Bundesliga football more or less consciously, in the early 1970s, almost all of my friends supported two clubs. Their first love was, with very few exceptions, one of the Ruhr teams surrounding us - mostly Dortmund or Schalke, maybe Bochum or even Essen. The second club, however, was always the same, Borussia Mönchengladbach.

There were many reasons why Gladbach were so well-liked, and more than a few of them had to do with the fact they weren't Bayern. Yes, even over thirty years ago, most football fans instinctively rooted for the team that was competing with Bayern.

I have no conclusive explanation for this, given that Bayern were still relative newcomers to the elite, hadn't yet become a silverware-devouring juggernaut and boasted many of the players who carried the country during the successful international tournaments of that era.

Still, the fact Gladbach regularly challenged the Munich team for the league title (and more often than not came out on top!) certainly bolstered their popularity.

Then there was the fact that the team, despite being a winning one, had a charming underdog aura, especially when coming up against a big gun in Europe; misfortune seemed to haunt them on that particular stage, in contrast to Bayern.

A good deal of that was down to the club's lack of funds, which time and again forced Borussia to replace outgoing stars with unknowns from places where few others bothered to look for talent.

Finally, watching Gladbach was often more fun than following Bayern.

The stats don't really bear out the popular myth that Borussia were the recklessly attacking team while the Munich stars only did what needed to be done. But that's what it felt like.

When German television introduced the now-legendary 'Goal of the Month' competition in early 1971, Gladbach players - Günter Netzer and Ulrik Le Fevre - won two of the first eight instalments and Le Fevre's stunning strike was even voted 'Goal of the Year', conclusive proof that Gladbach dished out the highlights while Bayern were content with results.

(Of course, a season later, half of the trophies went to Bayern players. But we ignored that.)

It's at this point in the column that I should perhaps inform the Soccernet headline and lead-in writer that he needn't rack his brains over how to incorporate 'Mönchengladbach' into a snappy one-liner. Because this column is not about Borussia. It's about Werder Bremen.

Werder, you see, are beginning to look more and more like a modern version of the old Mönchengladbach. They are the team who seem to be most consistently challenging Bayern over the past years, and they are doing it in great style.

When a discussion sprang up after the World Cup about whether and how the Bundesliga clubs should try to emulate Jürgen Klinsmann's high-risk game, Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf could lean back and say: 'Everyone who's seen us play these past years knows that we are already playing offensive football.'

Klinsmann's strategy of pushing far, far up field that triggered such a debate after the opening match against Costa Rica looked very familiar to those who have followed Werder's last Champions League campaign, marked by a suicidal offside trap that was regularly set up at the halfway line, with most Bremen players in the opponents' half and an empty space roughly the size of San Marino in front of their own goalkeeper.

And they are doing it domestically as well. Bremen were by far the highest-scoring team last season, delivering no less than seven matches where they found the net five or more times! And all the signs are this season won't be any different.

A fan who went to see Werder's first two matches has already been treated to 9 goals, 34 corners and, according to Kicker magazine's stats, 32 decent scoring opportunities. These are combined figures, of course, because Werder's tactics mean their opponents will get plenty of chances as well.

The most impressive aspect of Werder's entertainment mission is that the club shouldn't really be in a position to produce that kind of football.

If Gladbach's success in the 1970s was unlikely, Bremen's holding their own in the era of staggering wages and huge transfer sums is almost miraculous.

In contrast to Bayern, Schalke, Dortmund and even northern rivals Hamburg, Bremen don't have a spacious, shiny World Cup ground; they don't have a comparably large fan base; they don't have big companies supporting them. Even their new shirt sponsorship deal looks kind of shaky, because the betting company they have agreed to endorse has just been declared illegal by the courts since it's not state-owned.

And of course all that means Werder rarely have the money to keep the talent they produce or find.

Thomas Schaaf, who joined the club when he was eleven years old, has hardly had a summer at Bremen since becoming head coach in 1999 without having to watch one of his best players pack his bags.

In 2001, Claudio Pizarro joined Bayern and Raphael Wicky went to Atlético Madrid. A year later, Torsten Frings left for Dortmund. In 2003, goalkeeper Frank Rost signed for Schalke, quickly followed by defender Mladen Krstajic.

Then the German international Fabian Ernst took the same route and the Brazilian Ailton followed suit in 2004, having just scored 28 goals for Werder. Last year, Valérien Ismael decided the grass was greener in Munich, and this summer has seen striker Nelson Valdez being bought by Dortmund and playmaker Johan Micoud going back to France.

Yet Bremen somehow managed to offset all that. And they do it the time-tested Gladbach way, through a combination of making few mistakes in the transfer market and making players feel at home.

(Gladbach lost Jupp Heynckes in 1967, because the striker could earn more money in Hannover. Yet he was back after three seasons riddled with unhappiness and injuries - pretty much the story of Frings, who wasted three years in Dortmund and at Bayern before going back to Werder.)

The man Bremen found to replace Valdez, the young Portugese Hugo Almeida, has already scored two goals. And the player they hope will step into Micoud's shoes, the even younger Brazilian Diego, is currently the toast of the Bundesliga.

He's had a hand in five of Bremen's six goals so far - not to mention the back-heelers or bicycle kicks he's throwing in for good measure.

Perhaps Bremen have not yet reached the status Gladbach enjoyed in the 1970s, maybe no club ever will. (According to Der Spiegel magazine the club Germans really love to love plays in the third division - FC St Pauli.)

But it seems safe to say that mighty few fans would begrudge Werder the league title this season. Especially if they continue being so adventurous.

  • 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.

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