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Feb 6, 2008

Time to end Bundesliga hibernation

I'm fully aware the next sentence is going to sound awfully coquettish, but we journalists are so committed to the naked truth that there's nothing I can do about it.

The other day I met a terribly famous footballer who happens to be from Germany in a hotel in South London. Seeing that he was carrying a copy not of, say, 'The Financial Times' or 'Forbes' but the Thursday edition our own veritable football-in-print institution, 'kicker' magazine, I struck up a conversation about a think-piece penned by Hans Meyer.

In said issue of 'kicker', Meyer, the iconic Nuremberg coach, calls for an abolition of the Bundesliga's traditional winter break.

Obviously, he doesn't think that those five to six weeks of rest in December and January give you time to prepare for the second half of the season: 'Like any fan, like any player I long for the end of the winter preparation. A preparation that has proven how superfluous it is.'

Meyer says the winter break is too short to be really useful in terms of regeneration or building up what we call the 'basics' for the season (meaning both a certain level of fitness to carry you through gruelling weeks plus a tactical understanding of what the team should be doing). It would make a lot more sense, according to Meyer, to gain a few weeks during the winter and add them to the pre-season preparations in the summer.

This is, by and large, also what I happen to think. We've had that long winter break for as long as I can remember, and I guess that's precisely one of the reasons it's still there: tradition. Then again, it's not as much of a tradition as most people think.

For instance, when you ask people why we don't play football in late December and January, they usually say it's because of the weather.

And when you then point out that the weather is perfectly okay during those months, they will argue that it used be different. Back in the 60s or 50s. Back before global warming.

Well, that's strange. Because until the advent of the Bundesliga in 1963 there really wasn't anything you could call a winter break. Under the old system of the regional 'Oberligen', teams played week in, week out even during those supposedly nasty months.

This piece of information usually stuns Germans who aren't old enough to remember the days of the Oberligen, the more so since the players back then were semi-pros at best. But it's true. You can look it up.

Here are a few random picks from my stats books: In the 1953-54 season, the Oberliga West had complete matchdays on December 20, December 27, January 3 and January 10. In the 1957-58 season, the Oberliga Berlin offered one game on December 22, five games on December 29 and a complete matchday on January 5. In the 1960-61 season, the Oberliga North had games scheduled for December 18, December 26, January 2 and a complete matchday on January 9.

Of course there was a reason. Back in those days, before a nationwide league was introduced, the Oberliga seasons were comparable to very long qualification rounds, as the standings would determine who would make it to the latter stages of the national championships, contested in a few group games and then knock-out matches.

And so the Oberligen had to have a very tight schedule and be decided early in the year in order to allow the top teams to move on to the next stage. But whatever the reason for playing through the winter, the point is that it obviously can be done, and used to be done, even in Germany.

Back to the famous footballer. He's played in both Germany and England, so I asked him about his opinion on the subject. Predictably (because every player prefers playing to training) he said he doesn't mind not having a winter break. He added, though, that the ideal solution would be to follow the Spanish model and get ten days or two weeks off for the festive season and New Year's Eve.

Ah, well. They have families too, I reckon. But anyway, the long and the short of it is that the winter break is an anachronism. And if Al Gore is right it will become even more superfluous in the future. So let's kick this habit.

Another rule discussion that made the pages of 'kicker' concerns the draw for the German FA Cup. In the next round, Jena will play away at Stuttgart and Hoffenheim will travel to Dortmund. On Monday, a 'kicker' editor argued that 'those ties would be much more enticing if the lower-division teams would enjoy the home-field advantage'.

He says: 'One could argue that the Bundesliga would have to prefer a top team as Cup winner and thus starter in the Uefa Cup, because of Uefa's 5-year rankings. On the other hand, shouldn't a top-flight team always be able to hold their own away from home against a side from a lower division?'

Wise words, still I'm not entirely convinced. What if a club like Hansa Rostock, which needs every penny it can find, gets drawn against a wealthy club that happens to be playing in the second division, like Cologne?

If I were a Hansa fan I'd consider it grossly unfair to be robbed of a home game and a good chance at earning money in the Cup, not to mention making the next round, only because my opponent has had the misfortune of getting relegated.

But I guess we can discuss that at length roughly a year from now. During the long, long winter break.


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