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Stuttgart finally earn their star

There were more tears at Schalke on Saturday. Yes, the fans and the players had resigned themselves to the fact their chances were slim - but fate does tend to be cruel and gave them a glimmer of hope.

With Schalke leading Bielefeld 2-0, Stuttgart suddenly fell behind against Cottbus.

The Royal Blues were on top - for eight minutes, until Thomas Hitzlsperger showed why he was called 'The Hammer' in England, scoring with an unlikely and stunning volley from 20 or so yards out.

It was tough on Schalke.

But there is some sort of poetic justice to the way this Bundesliga season ended. I'm aware that this sentence will elicit howls of protest from people in Bremen and Gelsenkirchen (Schalke). Perhaps even in Munich, where they always protest about one thing or another. So let me explain what I mean.

I'm sure you all remember my column entitled 'It's good to be back' from way back, meaning August of 2004. That was the month the German Football League (DFL) introduced those stars worn on the players' shirts, representing championships won. Or rather Bundesliga titles won, which is not the same, as our professional league only came into being sixty years after the first national champions were crowned (VfB Leipzig, in 1903).

As you no doubt recall, there was a story about how and why the DFL introduced those stars which, erm, starred VfB Stuttgart quite prominently. For the benefit of the readers who have not memorised all of my 123 regular columns to date, let me not so briefly recap and expand.

VfB Stuttgart were formed in 1893 as a multi-sports club. (The unwieldy abbreviation VfB stands for, believe it or not, Club for Physical Games.) Hmmm, well. As is so often the case in Germany, where those years of foundation are a great source of pride, the year given is not entirely correct.

What was founded in 1893 was actually a club called FV Stuttgart. The 'F' stood for football, but in those days that meant rugby football. It was only some years later that the club also created an association football, or soccer, team.

In April of 1912, FV Stuttgart 93 merged with another club to form VfB Stuttgart. Of course the older club's foundation date was chosen to adorn the new entity's name. I say 'of course' because this is common practice when clubs merge in Germany.

Anyway, considering 1893 is universally accepted as VfB's year of birth, the club should have celebrated its centenary in 1993. But apparently the Swabians, as we shall see, have their own ideas of jubilees or when and how to celebrate what.

Granted, there was a problem in 1993, namely the fourth World Championships in Athletics, which were held at Stuttgart's ground in August. Since this month, the football off-season, would have been the best time to celebrate their jubilee, VfB simply decided to hold many of the planned festivities a year later, in 1994.

I suppose there must have been a few people at the club who felt that this was somewhat incorrect and didn't constitute a proper birthday bash.

At least that's my best explanation for the fact that there was suddenly another flurry of celebratory activity in 2003, on the occasion of the club's 110th birthday. (Which is not a real jubilee, but who cares about semantics?) There were, for instance, a few charming items that got printed, among them a commemorative coin. And players' shirts with four stars on them.

Those stars referred to the four championships Stuttgart could lay claim to at that time, won in 1950, 1952, 1984 and 1992. It was a nice idea - but also a rather bold one, as VfB had not asked the league for permission to wear this garment. This being Germany, the DFL quickly decreed that people couldn't do as they please and, this being football, that there had to be a rule for everything.

This rule was finally formulated and put into practice in 2004. It said that a club could wear one star for three Bundesliga titles won (two stars for five, three stars for ten or more). Yes, read the fine print: Bundesliga titles. That meant neither championships before 1964 nor league titles won in the GDR would count.

The German FA, who ran all of this country's football until the professional leagues won partial independence in 2000, were in favour of honouring all championships, but the DFL held firm and declared, in April of 2005, that the professional game would reward Bundesliga titles only.

Slyly, and perhaps even mischievously, the FA allowed those amateur clubs which were crowned champions at least once either before 1964 or in the GDR to incorporate a star into their badge.

However, that snubbing of the DFL was of no help whatsoever to VfB Stuttgart. They had instigated all that hullabaloo, all those red tape debates, but were left out in the cold when the dust settled. The DFL's rule meant that only the 1984 and 1992 titles won by Stuttgart would count - meaning no star for you, Swabians. Let alone four.

But Swabians are not only considered diligent, tidy and thrifty in Germany - they are also known for being cunning. And so they came up with an absolutely watertight plan to get their will after all: win the Bundsliga for a third time.

Last Tuesday, three days after VfB had gone two points clear at the top, Tom Bender (the DFL's managing director for marketing and communications, not the American green activist, obviously) declared that Stuttgart would become the sixth professional club permitted to wear a star on the shirt should they end the season in first place.

That's what they have done now, thus earning the right to legally wear the patch of honour that was denied them in 2003. And the team could do one better next weekend, when they contest the German FA Cup final against Nuremberg in Berlin.

So far, only four (West) German teams have ever won the league and Cup double: Bayern, Bremen, Schalke and Cologne. Should VfB become the fifth, I have a hunch they'll try to sneak something by the DFL again.

Perhaps the summer break will see football officials discussing how and where to honour doubles on a shirt.

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