Bundesliga reaches cash crossroads
This has been another ... er, what's the word - sobering? ... European week for the Bundesliga. Two points from six games. The only reason we're not saying that this is getting embarrassing is that it's been embarrassing for quite a long time now.
Germany's record is particularly depressing in the Champions League, where the three Bundesliga starters have accumulated, if that's the word, a silly seven points from twelve matches. No traditionally big league has ever done worse in this competition. Admittedly, a TV reporter tried to give us some solace on Wednesday, saying that the Dutch Eredivisie once racked up an even more terrible record. That was in 1999-2000, when Feyenoord, PSV and Willem II had five points after four rounds of games.
But have we already reached the point where we must compare the Bundesliga to, with all due respect, Holland's top flight? Uh. Well. I guess ... yeah.
Italy, Spain, England - even France: they are no longer the yardstick for the Bundesliga. Which is why Horst Heldt, director of football at German champions VfB Stuttgart, simply says: 'Our standards do not suffice for this competition.'
Let's be clear about this: Heldt is referring to a team that has lost every single Champions League game and was soundly beaten by Lyon - just three days before they ran rings round mighty Bayern Munich. Who had just been held to a draw by Bolton Wanderers.
A few weeks ago, I have told you how much fun the Bundesliga is and, more importantly, how fan-friendly our football has remained, compared to the corporate crassness running rampant elsewhere. But this comes at a price.
'We have to tread new paths', Heldt answered when asked about a remedy for Germany's problems on the international stage. 'If a team promoted to the English Premier League receives €40m in television money, while we - the Bundesliga champions - are getting €26m, then there is a discrepancy. We try to level out this discrepancy, and we don't want to talk about money all the time. But the fact remains that as the German champions we are in competition with clubs promoted to the Premier League.'
By which he means: in competition in the transfer market. I guess he's pointing to clubs like Birmingham City, who signed Olivier Kapo for €4.5m and Liam Ridgewell for €3m, while convincing a young Dutch player and former U21 international like Daniël de Ridder that fighting relegation in England is a fun thing to do. You may think these are trifling sums, but that's precisely what Heldt is talking about. That kind of money is usually the region in which Stuttgart operate when signing players. Usually.
VfB have twice jumped out of that region to buy big (by Swabian standards). The first time was in January of 2002, when they lured Fernando Meira away from Benfica for €7.5m. This figure was the club's record transfer fee until the past July, when Stuttgart signed the Romanian striker Ciprian Marica from Donetsk for €8m.
So, what is the connection between those two transfers? It's television money, or rather: the promise of it. For the 1999-2000 season, the KirchPayTV Holding, named after owner Leo Kirch, had secured the Bundesliga rights by promising the clubs €355m per year, a sum that would, under the contract, gradually increase to finally reach €460m. The clubs were only too willing to believe that Kirch could indeed recoup his investment by selling decoders and subscriptions to Premiere, the pay-tv station covering the league.
And they were willing to believe that the Kirch money would indeed come. Hence all the stunning transfers from that period, think Marcio Amoroso for (technically) €25m to Borussia Dortmund. Or Fernando Meira to Stuttgart.
But what followed came to be known as the Kirch Crisis, the German game's most threatening development since the bribe scandal of the early 70s. Kirch did not sell (enough) decoders or subscriptions, as fans felt very lukewarm about pay-money-to-see-football-on-television. In 2002, his company went bankrupt, and the riches he had promised the clubs never materialised.
This season, Stuttgart's new television money was coming from the Champions League, allowing Heldt to break the Swabian transfer record and land Marica. But all the signs are that VfB's future as regards transfers will again be played out in the Birmingham City territory.
Stuttgart, following their four losses, will be out of Europe - meaning out of European TV money - by December, and despite their victory over Bayern on Saturday, it's doubtful whether the club can once more qualify for the Champions League.
So, what can we do to level the playing field for the Bundesliga clubs? How can we see to it that clubs like Stuttgart can see eye to eye not with clubs like Real Madrid or Chelsea but at least with teams like Lyon - who recently signed Kader Keita for €18m, Fabio Grosso for €7m, Mathieu Bodmer for €6.5m and Anderson Cléber for €4m?
First, we (meaning the fans) can give up resistance and accept that we are not an island. If supporters all over Europe have to sell their cars to subscribe to Pay TV and mortgage their houses to afford a season ticket, well, then we might just have to lower our heads and run with the pack with our tails between our legs. After all, the sporting comeback of the year 2007 centred around none other than - Leo Kirch! In October, the 81-year-old entrepreneur came back from the dead to land the Bundesliga rights until 2015 (!) for his new company, Sirius. Which, we can presume, will try to massively reduce football on free TV.
Second, our clubs could try and produce better players. Don't laugh! The reason Lyon have been able to spend so much more money than Stuttgart is quite simple: they have sold homegrown French players, Florent Malouda to Chelsea for €21m and Éric Abidal to Barcelona for €15m.
Of course there is a third option. And that is not changing anything but our expectations. We could send teams to the Champions League, admit they are outsiders whose 'standards do not suffice for this competition' and aim towards third places in the groups to sneak into the UEFA Cup. Where our teams would then have done great if two make, say, the quarter-finals.
That's perhaps not a stance befitting the proud Bundesliga, but we can't have the cake and eat it at the same time.