My relationship with the Bundesliga began halfway through the 2006/2007 season, shortly after the – look away, English fans – winter break. Werder Bremen were top of the tree, thanks largely to the goals of Miroslav Klose and the all-round brilliance of the diminutive Brazilian playmaker Diego, leaving Schalke 04 and VFB Stuttgart to complete the three-horse race for the Meisterschaft.
Bayern Munich, league and cup winners the season previous and current Fußball demigods, were down in fourth – a position they had to settle for come the end of the season, resigning them to the now near-incomprehensible fate of competing in Europe’s second competition.
I remember this season being particularly enthralling, with Werder soon surrendering their grip at the top to Schalke, who themselves were dramatically pipped at the post by Stuttgart, who trainer Armin Veh lead to the summit on the penultimate round of games. This was especially exciting as I’d moved to southern Germany and VFB Stuttgart were my ‘local’ Bundesliga team.
Few experts considered them title contenders when the season kicked off. For one, Stuttgart started the season with a squad that had seen large changes, and they also had the youngest average age of all 18 teams. Early defeats saw them fighting it out at the bottom. However, as with Bremen, VFB had their own talented double act. Step forward Mario Gomez and Cacau. These in-form strikers helped shoot the team up the league, providing the momentum for a 13-game unbeaten run to bring the Schwaben their first trophy since the German Cup seven years earlier.
Fast forward another seven years. Seven years that has seen two Bayern titles sandwiching Felix Magath (yes, him) pulling off a Wunder with Wolfsburg, the emergence of Jürgen Klopp’s irresistible Borussia Dortmund, Jupp Heynckes’ triple-winning swansong, and finally a slim-suited Catalan touching down in Munich, tiki taka in tow.
While Bayern’s dominance has been firmly re-established, other clubs that introduced me to the Bundesliga have nosedived into mediocrity and beyond.
It can be argued that any league will have started to take shape after 10 games – when over a quarter of the season has been played. After 10 games this season the bottom six includes Bremen, Hamburg, Dortmund and my local team, Stuttgart – with Meistertrainer Veh back at the helm for a second spell. Schalke, incidentally, find themselves just one place above the six in 12th.
Granted, Dortmund’s position (and a run of four-straight defeats in the league) belies their quality, as a glance at this year’s Champion’s League will testify. It would be a real shock if they were too far from the top come May. But, although it is still relatively early in the season, the fact remains that clubs that were challenging for honours not too long ago, find themselves fighting relegation.
Last season, Rafael van der Vaart’s Hamburg stayed up by the skin of their teeth in a two-legged playoff, not winning either of the games and relying on a solitary away goal. Just one place above them, Stuttgart left it late to cement the last ‘safe’ spot. The season before, Bremen finished just one win away from the dreaded playoff. And the way the 2014/2015 season is shaping up there’s going to be some big names with some very squeaky bums come spring. And unless you are a fan of these teams, this makes for great entertainment.
The increasing focus on the bottom of the league starts at the top. Last season Bayern wrapped up the title in March, with an incredible seven games to spare – making them the earliest champions in the league’s history. The season before they claimed the top spot after the first game and never relinquished it. Add to that the fact that they have been able to cherry pick their rivals’ top performers – Neuer, Götze and Lewandowski amongst the most notable recently – and there is little sign their sovereignty waning. Consequently, it is natural to look elsewhere for the drama so inherent in football’s appeal.
Of course, there is pleasure in seeing a team function to the levels of Bayern, but it is reaching the point that many people find themselves so fixated with following, understanding and appreciating Bayern, that they are no longer watching a game between two teams.
Sportschau, Germany’s version on Match of the Day, follows a slightly different format to the boys from the BBC. Generally, the running order of the games depends on their relevance to the top of the table – i.e. Bayern matches are usually at the end. And as Sportschau is on from 6:30-8:00 pm, rather than around 10:30pm – midnight like MOTD, this is more about keeping you tuned in to the end, than getting you to turn on for the beginning.
But what if this changed? When the footballing public tire of seeing Bayern glide past teams with ease, will people start switching off early? We may soon see a time where German viewers are eased into the weekend’s action with a one-way master class from Pep’s men and led into a crescendo of a furious end-to-end battle between two wounded giants fighting for their lives.
I love the Bundesliga. I love good football, great goals, and innovative tactics. But as a package, the league has more to offer than perfection.
This is in no way to belittle Bayern. After all, everybody wants to be the best. They should be applauded, congratulated, appreciated, and certainly revered. However, if you’re looking for a spectacle or a narrative, then you may be better off turning the league table upside down and starting at the bottom.