When a poll by Goethe Institute and the British Council asked Britons to name negative German traits in 2003, “bad football” came in fifth, behind “the war”, “Nazis” and “bad food”. It’s fair to say things have changed somewhat in the past decade. First, the cheerful 2006 World Cup altered perceptions, then the German national team and the Bundesliga suddenly became role models for youth development, when Joachim Löw’s exciting side destroyed a sluggish England in the 2010 World Cup last 16 round 4-1 in Bloemfontein.
This week, the renaissance of Fußball-Deutschland is complete. In Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Munich, two Bundesliga teams will contest a European Cup final for the first time, in Wembley, of all places. Chancellor Angela Merkel – rumoured to be a Bayern supporter – has no doubt about the outcome. “Germany will certainly win the Champions League, that makes me happy,” she told reporters.
The euphoria is understandable. No German team has lifted an international trophy since Bayern Munich won the Champions League in 2001. Bayern, the German equivalent of Manchester United, with a turn-over of €370m and just under 200,000 fee-paying members, were half expected to make it to London. They boast a world-class squad full of German internationals and foreign stars like Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry and it’s their third final in four years. But Dortmund, coached by the excitable Jürgen Klopp, 45, have surprised everyone. Their rapid progress has rightly shifted the spotlight on the underlying reasons for the success of the German model.
Cheap ticket prices (season tickets at Bayern start at €120), standing terraces and beer make for a boisterous atmosphere in the grounds. More relevant are the strict licensing rules, however. Bundesliga clubs must be majority-owned by their members, have to spend within their means and cannot be bought (or sold) by investors.
In the not-so-distant past, this ban on “sugar daddy” owners happy to pump millions into the squads has been a severe disadvantage. But the inability to rely on a quick fix has ultimately proved beneficial, as German football had to address the root problem of its (relative) decline: its poor youth development. In 2000, the German FA and Bundesliga decided to invest heavily in academies and regional centres, to produce more technically proficient players. “We didn’t have to buy so many ageing foreigners anymore,” explained Munich forward Thomas Müller, 23. “What we are seeing today is the result of thirteen years of continued hard work,” said German FA sporting director Robin Dutt.
The economic crisis in Southern Europe, and new “financial fair play” regulations from UEFA that effectively act as a spending cap, could shift the balance further in Germany’s favour but there’s been little talk of European domination, a few over-enthusiastic tabloid headlines aside.
“It’s simply premature to talk about a paradigm shift,” warned 1974 World Cup winner Günter Netzer. But at the same time, there’s a quite typically German sense of satisfaction that the friendly invasion of Northwest-London has not come about by an accident. “We have shown that performance can be organised,” said Bayern sporting director Matthias Sammer.
The Uefa Champions League Final kicks off at 7:45pm on Saturday 25 May, with coverage from 7pm on ITV1