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Monday, October 10, 2005

The Bundesliga: A Brief History Of

With World Cup 2006 in Germany less than a year away I thought I'd present something else about German football in addition to the great interview Markus Klöschen did recently. Brian A. O'Driscoll writes a very informative piece about the history of the Bundesliga. Originally printed at Goal.com, he was kind enough to allow me to reprint it here.

The German Bundesliga is the world’s best supported domestic league championship with a rich tradition and dramatic past.

The Early Days

Formed in 1963 to usher in a new era of professionalism in the German game, it is the most important football league in continental northern Europe, with a sphere of influence stretching from Denmark in the north to Russia in the east via the Balkans, the central European states, and near neighbours Austria and Switzerland.

Until its formation, football in Germany was regionally-based, with a knockout tournament held each season between the regional champions to determine the federal masters. Köln, defeated in the federal play-off final of 1963, became the first Bundesliga champions in 1964 and boasted players of the calibre of Wolfgang Overath. They would win the title again in 1978, but have experienced a yo-yo existence since the great days of Pierre Littbarski, Klaus Allofs, and Harald Schumacher, though have just returned to the top flight once more with young sensation Lukas Podolski.

The 1960s saw numerous different winners including 1860 Munich, Eintracht Braunschweig, and Nürnburg, the latter returning to the top table last year after a difficult period in the 1990s. The most notable champion in that decade, however, was a small club from Bavaria propelled to the top by perhaps the richest seam of young talent ever unearthed. Bayern Munich won their first Bundesliga title in 1969 with youngsters Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, and Sepp Maier making a name for themselves in domestic football for the first time.

The Golden Years

The 1970s heralded a golden age in German football, though a bribery scandal darkened the early seasons of the new decade. The national team was dominant in the international arena, and Udo Lattek’s Bayern were continental masters three years in succession. Domestically, Bayern were engaged in an absorbing rivalry with Borussia Mönchengladbach, a club that also made its mark on the European stage with players like Günter Netzer, Jupp Heynckes, and Berti Vogts. While Gladbach won the first title of the ’70s, Bayern took over with three titles on the bounce. However, Gladbach emulated the feat by 1977 as a fierce rivalry simmered. With Beckenbauer and Müller finishing their dazzling careers, Bayern turned to former star Paul Breitner and the young Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to restore pre-eminence. However, one club would prove a constant thorn in the side of the brilliant "Breitnigge" duo. Ernst Happel’s Hamburger SV, the giants of the north, emerged to take the 1978 championship and lured European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan to the Bundesliga in a demonstration of league supremacy. Nevertheless, Bayern now posssessed the world’s greatest striker in the maturing Rummenigge, and successive titles followed for the Bavarians along with two European Footballer of the Year awards for the super-dribbler. Yet, HSV would not be outdone, and the team of Felix Magath, Manfred Kaltz, and Horst Hrubesch took two more titles of their own along with the European Cup itself in the early 1980s, adding a glorious chapter in the club's history to that of Uwe Seeler's days in the 1960s.

Legionnaires Abroad

The high water-mark had been reached for the Bundesliga, but attendances continued to rise throughout the 1980s. Bayern’s dominance of the German game continued with Lothar Matthäus moving from Mönchengladbach to cushion the blow of the Rummenigge departure to Italy, a journey that many top German players would make over the coming decade. Stuttgart and Werder Bremen emerged to rival the Bavarians as Hamburg faded from prominence. Bremen sensationally missed a late penalty against Bayern in the last match of the 1985/1986 season and lost the title, the width of a post costing Otto Rehhagel his first crown. However, "King Otto" would eventually triumph with Rudi Völler up front in 1988. That same season, national team goalkeeper, Harald "Toni" Schumacher, published his sensational expose of German football, Anpfiff. Containing allegations of general debauchery and drug-taking, the book rather unfairly cost Schumacher the captaincy of club and country, and his career.

Unification

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 led to the first unified German championship since the War. However, Eastern sides have fared badly in the new order, and Dynamo Berlin, Carl Zeiss Jena, Lokomotiv Leipzig, and Dynamo Dresden have all dropped into lower divisions or even regional football, sometimes under new names. Last season, only Hansa Rostock represented the old GDR in the top flight, and sadly lost that honour after a depressing season ended in relegation.

A pattern of Bayern dominance interspersed with rare pickings for occassional challengers was now developing in the German game. Kaiserslautern had their moment in 1991, and Christoph Daum’s Stuttgart in 1992. Bremen won a third title in ’93, and for once it seemed as if the balance of power had finally shifted away from Bavaria. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund became the most serious challenger to Bayern hegemony in 15 years when they took two titles and a European Cup in the mid 1990s, but Bayern remained the standard, with further championships in 1994 and 1997. Kaiserslautern pulled off the rare feat of winning the 2. Bundesliga and 1. Bundesliga in successive seasons under Rehhagel in 1998. Leverkusen, UEFA Cup winners in 1988, fueled by the huge backing of pharmaceutical giants Bayer, became major players and threatened to take the big domestic prize on a number of occassions, but agonisingly failed each time.

So Close...

Hitzfeld moved from the Westfalenstadion to Munich to safeguard Bayern’s supremacy, and two European Cup finals were contested with mixed fortunes. Three Bavarian Bundesliga crowns told of last-day heartbreak for Leverkusen and Schalke 04, before Dortmund reasserted themselves under Matthias Sammer to clinch the 2002 title. Though Bayern won in 2003 by a record margin, Werder Bremen arrived out of the pack to dominate the following season, as the Bundesliga continued to lead the European attendance tables as the best supported championship. The Weser hedgemony was short-lived however, with Bayern re-establishing themselves as German champions once again last season, winning at a canter after Schalke 04 threatened a maiden title. That's been the story of the German game in recent times. So many clubs remain competitive, and many get so close to glory, only for Bayern to appear like a spectre and hoover up the titles.

The Bavarians start the 2005/2006 championship as clear favourites again, but some interesting summer business adds to the fascination of the pre-World Cup domestic campaign. Bremen have re-signed Torsten Frings and let Valerien Ismael plug the gap left by Robert Kovac in the champions' defence. Schalke have signed German international Kevin Kuranyi from Stuttgart and will sport former Bremen ball-winner Fabian Ernst in their revamped midfield. Hamburger SV audaciously captured Dutch talent Rafael van der Vaart in a bid to bridge the gap to the top table of championship contention, while Stuttgart welcomed back legendary coach Giovanni Trapattoni to German football after a six year break. Add to that the return of superstar-in-the-making Lukas Podolski and you've got plenty to look forward to over the next nine months.

© Copyright 2005, Brian A. O'Driscoll, Berlin

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