by Panos Bletsos
Although established only in 1963, much later than every other major domestic top-flight league in Europe, the Bundesliga is currently one of the most popular national championships in the world, televised in no fewer than 199 countries across the globe! And there’s a key reason why: you never know who will win it.
Only a few days ago, Bayern Munich’s Mario Gómez, the ongoing tournament’s leading marksman, expressed his belief that the Bundesliga will “in the long run be the most attractive league of them all”. In terms of attracting fans within the German border, it already is. With an average attendance of 42,673 last season, it was the top football league in the world – and the second in any sport for that matter, beaten only by the NFL.
Nearly half a century since its foundation, the Bundesliga has seen exactly 50 different clubs competing for the title – and 29 of them have actually achieved it, even once! The last to have become a member of this elite group was Wolfsburg in 2008-’09, while four different sides have claimed the trophy within the past five seasons! So, who will win it this time?
The obvious answer would be Bayern. By far the most expensive squad assembled in the country, with an estimated total market value of nearly 360 million euros (USD 471 million), more than double than Borussia Dortmund. The Bavarian giants have other aces up their sleeves as well. In Jupp Heynckes they employ one of the most experienced German coaches in the business, they boast superstars such as Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, their players form the core of the highly successful national side (including the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller and Gómez) and they certainly possess the know-how. The Munich giants have been crowned German champions 22 times, with their Bavarian rivals Nuremberg a distant second on nine titles.
A simple glimpse at the table right now shows that the Bundesliga run-in is a four-horse race. Die Roten still have to play the two sides currently level with them at the top: they entertain Schalke later this month and visit Dortmund on round 30, come April. However, they only have seven home games left and eight away, including trips to Hamburg, Leverkusen, Berlin and Bremen. Bayern are also still in the hunt for the domestic Cup (they face a tricky quarterfinal trip to Stuttgart next week) and perhaps for the UEFA Champions League, being tipped as overwhelming favourites to reach the last eight at the expense of Swiss champions Basel.
Although Bayern are the only Bundesliga title contender to be competing on three fronts, Schalke’s international aspirations cannot be taken lightly either. The reigning Supercup and Pokal champions have every reason of feeling confident they can at least make the UEFA Europa League quarters, as they play the rising force of Czech football, Viktoria Plzeň, with a tie against either Steaua or Twente looming in the third round. As far as the championship is concerned, Die Königsblauen look like holding their fate in their own hands, since they will be taking on all three of their title rivals. And even though they will host Borussia Dortmund on round 31, it may be too late for Schalke by then – they travel to both Mönchengladbach and Munich this month.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Raúl González have netted 40 times between them this season and have turned Huub Stevens’ side into a force to be reckoned with, even though they haven’t been crowned champions since 1958 – five years before the Bundesliga was even established! However, Schalke have been there or there about for years, finishing second on no less than four occasions since the 2000-’01 campaign and after all boast one of the most expensive squads in the country, valued at USD 185 million.
The miracle worker
That’s almost double the money this season’s surprise package is worth. With a virtually unchanged roster compared to last year, when they only narrowly escaped relegation in a two-legged play-off against Bochum, Swiss mastermind Lucian Favre has transformed Borussia Mönchengladbach into an exciting, attack-minded side, if not capable then at least ambitious of emulating the glory days of the 1970s. At 22 Marco Reus has been a revelation and before re-joining boyhood club Borussia Dortmund in the summer (in a deal worth 23 million) he hopes he can lead Die Fohlen to their first league title in 35 years. Still vying for the national Cup as well, Borussia, today a single point behind the rest three, will welcome local rivals Schalke in a few days, but face a number of dangerous-looking trips until the end of the season, including Leverkusen, Hannover, Bremen and… Dortmund.
Dortmund’s rise to stardom
Which brings us to the title holders – and my favourites to retain top spot come May. Rapidly improving on their 13th–spot finish in ’07-’08 under Jürgen Klopp, Die Borussen became the youngest squad to ever win the Bundesliga and they look like repeating that feat, as long as they stay up there until April, when they’ll have it all to play for in three consecutive fixtures: Bayern at home, Schalke away and Gladbach at home. With the exception of unpredictable Werder, Borussia will be odds-on favourites to beat every other opponent visiting the Signal Iduna Park and they can certainly add to their five away victories so far when they travel to the likes of Nuremberg, Augsburg, Cologne and Kaiserslautern, while also keeping an eye on the Pokal too. And holding on to Lucas Barrios, although misfiring so far this term, may prove a key factor.
Kevin Großkreutz, one of Klopp’s secret weapons, openly said that old foes Schalke cannot win the Bundesliga this season either, while Reus has tipped Bayern Munich to make it three trophies in five years, although he recently turned them down. We’ll just have to wait and see, but perhaps Mario Gómez was just being modest: the Bundesliga already is “the most attractive league of them all”.
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