Has German Soccer Conquered Europe? Not QuiteS

Originally published in Bloomberg View.

The Champions League final, the biggest soccer match of the year—and, for that matter, the most watched sporting event on the planet—will be played this weekend at Wembley Stadium in London. In a sense, though, the winner has already been declared: Germany.

The Champions League, for Americans unfamiliar with it, is a round-robin tournament featuring 32 of Europe’s top clubs. Think of it as the very rough equivalent of the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament, only it unfolds over the course of 10 excruciating months. (This is soccer, after all.) Matches are wedged between the various teams’ league games until there are just two clubs left. This year’s finalists are Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

Both teams are German, and both reached the finals by thrashing Spanish clubs—Bayern beat Barcelona, and Dortmund defeated Real Madrid. This has prompted a lot of talk about the end of one era (Spain’s) and the beginning of another (Germany’s). Forget the tiki-taka, the hypnotic, possession-oriented style that has been the hallmark of Spanish soccer. The Germans have figured out a new formula for success.

It’s an appealing story line, particularly for those of us raised on American sports, in which kings are forever being anointed and dethroned. International soccer doesn’t work that way, though, and that is its glory.

There’s no doubt about German soccer’s appeal. Like Germany itself, it was once known for its organization and discipline. No longer. The Germans now play free-flowing soccer, with creativity and flair—a faster, stronger, more relentlessly aggressive version of Spain’s patient, mellifluous style. It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Then there are the teams themselves. Bayern may be big and rich, but Dortmund is a classic “Moneyball” outfit. The club almost went bankrupt a decade ago, and has since rebuilt using a cost-effective combination of young German talent and undervalued foreign players. Its payroll is a fraction of, say, Real Madrid’s. Even its history is appealing: During World War II, some of the club’s members used its offices to print anti-Nazi propaganda (and were executed for doing so).

For disgruntled fans—especially English Premier League fans—there’s plenty to like about Germany’s Bundesliga, too, as long as you’re comfortable with heavy regulation. Members retain majority control of their clubs; there are no American interlopers or Arab oil sheiks overleveraging teams, let alone using them as personal ATMs. To be granted an operating license, a team must prove each season that it has its financial house in order. It’s the rare European soccer league that’s “fiscally sound.” (Another way German soccer mirrors Germany itself. Meanwhile, Spain’s league, like Spain, is a fiscal disaster.) Almost all top-tier clubs run their own youth academies. In Germany it’s a requirement, one intended less to bolster the clubs themselves than to ensure a steady stream of talent for the national team.

Finally, there is the appeal of the underdog, as strange as it may seem to apply the term to anything German. Spain—and Barcelona in particular—has held the soccer world in its dazzling thrall for several years. It’s natural, though, to want to see the reigning power toppled, especially when its defeat can be seen as vindicating smart management and fan empowerment.

But let’s not read too much into this weekend’s final. It’s impossible to play as many games as Barcelona has, inside and outside its home league, and maintain dominance. Nor is it fair to judge the rest of Germany’s European competitors on the basis of a single season. An English club has appeared in all but one of the last eight Champions League finals; in 2008, there was an all-English final. That’s a record the German league can’t match.

Can Germany hope to equal Spain’s recent success, which includes World Cup and two Euro Cups? The German national team has plenty of talent at midfield, but a good deal less up top: Much of Dortmund and Bayern’s offensive firepower is provided by foreigners (specifically, a Pole, a Frenchman, a Dutchman and a Croatian).

More generally, it’s helpful to think of soccer evolution in generational rather than geographic terms. Germany isn’t the only country with a stable of young stars that will reach their prime over the next few years. Belgium is another.

The Bundesliga itself is far from ideal. It’s struggling with the same competitive-balance issues as other European soccer leagues: Bayern and, to a lesser extent, Dortmund, invariably wind up on top.

Although the Bundesliga has a generous domestic TV contract and the best attendance in Europe—thanks, in part, to low ticket prices and mega-stadiums built for the 2006 World Cup—its international appeal is dubious. The global market is saturated, and aside from Bayern, none of the German clubs has much of a profile outside the country. It doesn’t help that a lot of them are based in relatively small, unglamorous cities. Is the world ready to fall in love with a team from Leverkusen?

The Bundesliga has thus far managed to retain many of the country’s top players, but there will always be the allure of earning more money playing for one of soccer’s historic clubs in, say, England or Spain. This is part of what makes international soccer so much fun: the clash of rival leagues vying for players from every corner of the world, and of rival nations constantly trying to come up with new ways to cultivate talent and revolutionize the game. It’s something rarely seen in U.S. sports leagues, which are never pushed to evolve.

None of this is to say that the Bundesliga won’t continue to grow or that the German system won’t continue to produce top-level talent. But two teams in the Champions League finals don’t make a national dynasty any more than a sound, solvent league ensures superior innovation. In the expansive, fiercely competitive world of international soccer, there is no single formula for sustained success.

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahleron Twitter.

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