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Bundesliga goes down to the wire again

At the beginning of each month, I send a brief run-down of the past four Bundesliga weeks to an English monthly. When I last did this, in early May, the editor of the section in question replied with an e-mail containing just one line: "Another crazy month in Europe's most exciting league."

Crazy and exciting, indeed. Before this round of games began with the Tuesday kick-offs, we were informed by all and sundry that we were witnessing the closest race in league history, as a mere two points separated first place from fourth place with three games left in the season. And now, one round of games later, those four teams are still in the running.

But it is not entirely without precedent. Take the 1983-84 campaign, when the 32nd day of the season not only brought a new record with 53 goals scored in the nine games, but also resulted in Stuttgart and Hamburg being level on points, while Bayern and Gladbach were just two points behind. Or take that other season we'll come to in a minute or so.

Yes, the Bundesliga has quite a history of thrilling finishes. Tuesday's and Wednesday's results mean this season will be decided only on the last matchday, as neither Wolfsburg nor Bayern can open up more than a three-point lead next weekend. This is the 46th season of the Bundesliga and, according to a survey I've just done, it's the 23rd time we won't know who will win it until the final 90 minutes have been played.

You'll know that I'm a bit of a statto (in part because it helps fill column space quickly, just wait and see), but I'm not mad enough to do the same kind of research for every major league in Europe. Still, I'm fairly sure that the German ratio of having such a close race every second year is pretty good.

(Before you ask: in four of the previous 22 down-to-the-wire seasons, the race was still in the balance in theory only, such as in 1982, when Cologne trailed Hamburg not only by the two points awarded for a win back then but also by fifteen goals.)

The best run of nail-biting finishes came in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1995, the season was decided on the very last day for five years running. This stretch also brought us what is probably still the closest race of all, despite the current drama. Because in 1992, three teams were level on points with only 90 minutes left to go.

It was the third time in Bundesliga history that more than two clubs were still in the running when they approached the final hurdle, though the previous two occasions don't really count. In the above-mentioned 1983-84 season, Stuttgart eventually led Hamburg and Gladbach by only two points, yet Stuttgart's goal difference was too good to be matched. And in 1976-77, only Schalke had a real chance to catch Gladbach, as Brunswick had to close a gap of two points and twelve goals.

But in 1992, it was really a close three-horse race. Frankfurt, who hadn't won the championship since before the inception of the Bundesliga, led Stuttgart and Dortmund on goal difference only - and all three teams closed out the season away from home.

Dortmund's away game was, incidentally, the reason I've stopped taking a radio to the ground. With some fifteen minutes left on the clock and in the season, Dortmund were ahead 1-0 in Duisburg, while Frankfurt were drawing their game at Rostock and the score between Leverkusen and Stuttgart was 1-1.

That's when the first Dortmund fans began to entertain the idea we could really win our first championship since 1963, the season before the Bundesliga was formed. The first flags were raised, people started up chants. With each passing minute, the celebrations increased in number and volume. With five minutes left, the whole stand opposite ours was a sea of black-and-yellow flags and scarves.

Sixty seconds later, they all abruptly came down and the place went quiet. The way I remember it, hundreds of anxious faces questioningly turned towards the only guy in our part of the stand who had a radio. That was yours truly. "Buchwald. Stuttgart have gone 2-1 up," I said quietly - yet they all heard me.

Yes, that was tough. But it was a lot worse for the Frankfurt fans. That season was the finest hour of their legendary team featuring Andreas Möller, Uwe Bein and Anthony Yeboah. They thoroughly deserved to win the league - and a major reason they didn't was that the referee denied them one of the clearest penalties you or your children will ever see in their final match.

Ten years after the game, two Frankfurt fans published a book about that day. It's called "The Rostock Trauma. The Story of a Football Catastrophe". On the very first page, there is an official team photo headed with the words "German Champions 1991-92". The picture caption explains: "Postcard. Pulped."

So I guess I shouldn't complain about Buchwald's late goal. Especially since Dortmund would get more chances to win the league on the final day. And take them all.

For instance in 2002, the fourth - and to date the last - time three teams were still fighting for the title on the last day (Dortmund were one point ahead of Leverkusen and two points ahead of Bayern.) It was another let's-leave-it-late thing, as Dortmund scored the goal that finally won it only sixteen minutes from the final whistle. But of course that was nothing compared to what had happened the year before.

On May 19, 2001, delirious Schalke supporters and even club officials celebrated their team's first national championship since 1958 when the final whistle rang on the final day of the season. They had been told Bayern had lost their game at Hamburg - when it was in fact still underway. Five minutes into stoppage time, Patrik Andersson scored his only goal for Bayern Munich from an indirect free to win the league after all.

Of course it can't get any more spectacular and dramatic than that. Or can it? Considering how crazy this campaign has been, we shouldn't rule out anything. Perhaps not even the scenario of a final. If Hertha and Wolfsburg lose the next game while Bayern and Stuttgart win, then the match between those two sides on the last day will decide the title.

I admit it's not likely. And so a game played 37 years ago will probably remain the Bundesliga's only picture-perfect showdown. In 1971-72, Bayern went into the last day one point ahead of Schalke - who were their opponents in the final match. The thrill was brief, though. Bayern were 2-0 up at halftime and won 5-1.


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