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Is Bayern Munich breaking the Bundesliga?


Pool photo by Alexander Hassenstein/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Rory Smith


The first time Gregor Weinreich saw Bayern Munich crowned champion of Germany, he celebrated until sunrise. That was 1994. Three years later, when it happened again, he was so euphoric that he ran onto the field at the club’s old Olympic Stadium, a flare burning and sputtering in his hand. He was not alone. Many hundreds more did the same.


Those memories remain sharp and clear and warm a quarter of a century later. His recollections of much more recent triumphs, by contrast, are already faded, fuzzy, indistinct. Weinreich knows Bayern won the title in 2014, and 2015, and 2016, and 2017, but he cannot tell them apart. “If you ask me about those championships, I have almost no memories,” he said.


It is not hard to see why Bayern’s success has blurred into a single shapeless mass. The club has won the Bundesliga title in each of the last nine years. A single point on Saturday against Borussia Dortmund — the last team to deprive it of the championship, back in 2012 — would extend that streak to 10 championships in a row.


Weinreich will not be staying awake until dawn to exult in that achievement, to revel in the perpetuation of the sort of uncontested primacy that most fans, in theory, crave. His loyalty to Bayern Munich might be unswerving — he is a former chairman of Club Number 12, a Bayern fans’ group — but he does not particularly see yet another championship as a cause for celebration.


He is not alone in that sentiment, either. “More and more Bayern fans are concerned about the lack of competition,” he said. “I don’t know if it is a majority yet. But of course more and more fans doubt the value of a competition that produces the same winner for 10 years.”


In certain lights, this has been a compelling season for German soccer. Just over a week ago, Eintracht Frankfurt took so many fans to Barcelona for a Europa League game that the Spanish team had to launch an internal investigation into how quite so many of them acquired tickets.


Eintracht won that night, booking its place in the semifinals of the Europa League. It might face another Bundesliga representative, RB Leipzig, in the competition’s final next month. SC Freiburg, a modest club from the picturesque fringes of the Black Forest, meanwhile, not only remains in unlikely contention to qualify for next season’s Champions League, but has reached the German cup final for the first time in its history.


“All of the other fights have been pretty interesting,” said Christian Streich, the Freiburg coach who has come to be seen, in recent years, as a sort of voice of reason in German soccer. “Relegation has been interesting. There are teams going for the Europa League who have not qualified before. It is just that the Bundesliga title race has, unfortunately, not been too exciting.”


That is hardly atypical. Bayern has finished each of the last two seasons 13 points ahead of its nearest challengers. Only once in the last decade — in 2019, when Dortmund limited the gap to two points — has Germany witnessed a genuine title race rather than a stately procession. That year apart, no team has finished within 10 points of Bayern since 2012.


That success is, of course, to Bayern’s great credit. It has long been Germany’s biggest, richest, most glamorous team, but for years was held back by its supernova streak. Its combustible blend of powerful players, superstar managers and squabbling executives would self-destruct so reliably that the club became known as FC Hollywood. Consumed by infighting, it would every so often allow one of its rivals — Dortmund or Werder Bremen or VfB Stuttgart — to sneak in and claim a championship.


Bayern’s relentlessness in the last 10 years has come to be explained, then, by its ability to control its taste for self-immolation. Bayern hires the right coaches, signs the right players, smartly appoints alumni to illustrious positions behind the scenes. It has, as Fernando Carro, the chief executive of Bayer Leverkusen, said, “done excellent work over the years.” Bayern is what happens when big teams are run well.


And that, German soccer’s power brokers have long insisted, is a good thing. Executives at the Deutsche Fussball Liga, the Bundesliga’s governing body, have long presented Bayern’s dominance as an advantage for the league. Bayern’s virtue, the theory goes, not only serves as an advertisement for German soccer, but it exerts a pull on the competition itself, helping to drag everyone else along in its wake.


Dario Minden, the vice chairman of Unsere Kurve, an umbrella group representing the interests of game-day fans across Germany, does not go along with that analysis. “It’s not that they don’t make mistakes,” he said. “They do. They make big mistakes. It is just that they have such an advantage that they can afford to make mistakes.”


In his eyes, there is no great mystery as to why Bayern keeps winning. “The core of the problem is that Bayern’s annual budget is $380 million and Dortmund, the second-richest team, has a budget of $270 million,” Minden said. “Then there are small teams, like Greuther Fürth, operating on $19 million.”


That financial advantage means Bayern exists in a different reality from its putative peers. “The simple fact is they don’t need to sell their players,” said Carro, the Leverkusen chief executive. “That means Bayern can keep the core of their team together for years.”


To Carro, that is not an insurmountable obstacle. Leverkusen, he said, starts every season believing it can end Bayern’s dominance. “If you don’t go in with that approach, you might as well not compete at all,” he said. “The margins can be incredibly slim. There have been chances for contenders to step in at times, and there will be new ones in the future. Yes, you need to perform on your highest level for a long time, but I am convinced it can be done.”


To others, though, the situation is far more perilous. There are many, in Germany, who believe the Bundesliga now stands as a warning to every other major league in Europe about the dangers of what happens when, as Minden put it, the principle of “competitive balance is broken” on some fundamental level.


“The Bundesliga is boring,” he said. “That is just common sense.”


His opinion is not a niche position within German soccer. There is, indeed, a groundswell of support for the idea that something has to change. The issue is that nobody can quite agree on what that something might be.


Weinreich, for example, argues that the status quo is effectively ossified by the fact that, every year, the same teams — led by Bayern — receive vast windfalls for competing in the Champions League, creating what is, in effect, an unbreakable virtuous circle. “The way the money is distributed was designed in such a way that a club that already has a dominant position in its country benefits,” he said.


Carro, meanwhile, suggested that the only quick fix to Bayern’s hegemony would be to abolish the 50+1 rule that means Germany’s clubs must — with a handful of exceptions — be controlled by their fans. That would, in theory, allow for the sort of outside investment that reshaped the landscape of England’s Premier League, though it is one that has precious little popular support within German soccer. “The league should not strive to improve at any price or by any means,” Streich said.


Minden went further, suggesting he would find it “disgusting” — a form of “moral bankruptcy” — for German teams to be owned and operated by some of the investors who have bought Premier League teams. “I could not celebrate a goal that had been bought and paid for by a dictator who dismembers journalists,” he said.


Besides, to his eyes, abandoning the 50+1 system would exacerbate the problem, rather than solve it. “It would cause huge damage,” he said. “It would still be the big clubs that attracted investment. The only global brand in Germany is Bayern Munich. The money would still come to them, and we would lose our democracy, and our culture.”


This weekend, or on a weekend very soon, Bayern will win a 10th consecutive championship. “And unless very improbable things happen, maybe there will be 15, or 20,” Weinreich said. Winning a championship is supposed to be unforgettable. The problem comes when you cannot remember one from another.

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