The Bundesliga has become an inseparable part of Germany’s society over the past 50 years. Thanks to its incomparable success story, it has evolved into Germany’s premium product in sporting terms and as a business with a huge amount of positive feedback, it counts as one of the strongest football leagues in the world.
The Bundesliga began on August 24th 1963 with three of Germany’s heroes from Bern still active: Max Morlock, Helmut Rahn and Hans Schäfer. The last three remaining football protagonists from an era when football was still romantically viewed as a game played by eleven friends. They witnessed the start of the Bundesliga’s incredible success story first hand. Since then, a lot has changed – both on and off the pitch.
The first goalkeepers still played without the use of gloves and the kit numbers were 1 to 11, as only eleven players were allowed to play – substitutions were only introduced in 1967, however (initially), only when the team’s physician deemed this necessary. No one wore multicoloured shoes and no sponsors decorated the team’s jerseys. The price for a place in Schalke’s stands was 1.40 Deutschmark and highlights of only three games were shown on television. The events in the other fixtures remained a big mystery. The stadiums portrayed the charm of the pioneering days, as the stands were made out of wood and the scoreboard was operated manually. The players had other professions and were only allowed to earn a maximum of 1,200 Deutschmark.
These all sound like tales from another world. The list could go on but it doesn’t change the fact that the Bundesliga has become a central part of Germany’s society over the past 50 years. Every Saturday afternoon, there are millions of fans, and not just men anymore, who feel a sense of excitement building as all other appointments or events become irrelevant at half past three. They pursue their passion of capturing the events in the Bundesliga, whether in the stadium itself, in front of the television or via the radio, which was the most prominent way to catch up on the action during the first three decades.
Nowadays, there is even the option to watch all the games via a simulcast function on your television. It has virtually become impossible to miss out on a goal scored. Another reason for this is that the vastly changing media coverage intensely discusses and covers the events of the Bundesliga throughout the week. A TV contract did not exist in the first two years. In 1965, the German FA (DFB) signed a deal with the two TV stations governed by public law for 647,000 Deutschmarks. As of next season, the clubs in the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga are expected to collect almost 2000 times that.
It would be wrong to blame this fact on inflation. The only inflation is the rising interest in Germany’s premium sports product.
Otto Rehhagel once said that football is “the theatre for the small man”. It was always popular, but it required 60 years before it acquired a state of perfect organisation in Germany. West Germany was the last European country to establish a central football league. Before the war, there were 20 leagues in total. After the war ended, only five remained (four top regional leagues and the city league in Berlin).
The DFB had one of their best ideas when they approved the introduction on the Bundesliga on July 28th 1962 in a meeting held in Dortmund (102-26 votes). There were concerns that football in Germany was falling behind on an international level after the disappointing result in the FIFA World Cup in Chile and when the first professional players started to move abroad to Italy, where they were paid higher wages. The decision had the desired effect, as Germany have not missed a World Cup since then – Italy are the only European team that has achieved the same feat.
Plenty of success has been achieved since 1963: Two World Cup victories, three European Championships and 17 triumphs in Europe’s club competitions. The Bundesliga has produced “Europe’s Footballer of the Year” on nine occasions.
But the Bundesliga hasn’t only had good days. Nowadays, when the attendance records are broken year after year, there are things that should be kept in mind. The first major crisis, the manipulation scandal in 1971, had lasting effects. The fans stayed at home and the money wasn’t flowing in. In 1973, the idea of splitting the division into two groups of nine to save travel costs was deliberated. The suggestion from Cologne was dismissed – fortunately.
At a meeting in Stuttgart in April 1990, the DFB opted to reduce the league to 16 clubs from the 1992/93 season. But the political change that took course on the streets of East Germany in autumn 1989 and the German reunification that followed in October 1990 destroyed those plans. If Germany is growing, the Bundesliga cannot be made smaller.
The cooperation between major politics and sport gave the Bundesliga that extra bit of impetus, as during that time, Germany’s last World Cup win to date also occurred in Rome. During the 1989/90 season, the average attendance for Bundesliga games was 19,880. The nation’s third World Cup triumph saw those numbers explode. The average attendance increased five seasons in a row and the 30,000 barrier was surpassed for the first time in 1997/98.
An essential economic factor was the introduction of private television providers within German media, whose focus was the Bundesliga from day one. Benefitted by the new stadiums and improved infrastructure brought about the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the average attendance has since breached the 40,000 mark. The average attendance in the Bundesliga’s 50th season (42,623) was slightly lower than the 45,116 from the season before due to teams with smaller stadiums being promoted, but it was still the third-highest amount of all time. The fact that no one has an answer for when the increase in figures will end is the least of worries for the people in charge.
The DFB and the DFL, an amalgamation of the Bundesliga clubs introduced in December 2000, are proud of the fact that the Bundesliga is number 1 in Europe for attendance figures, which is incredibly attractive for big-name stars from abroad, who have all doors open to them since the Bosman ruling. Plus, no league is in a healthier position. A strict licensing process prevents gamblers or charlatans from any wrongdoing, something that wasn’t in place from time to time in the early decades of the Bundesliga’s existence. A license hasn’t been revoked since then.
The total attendance figure of 430 million since 1963 makes the Bundesliga one of the country’s leading entertainment enterprises. No opera house, no musical, no cinema complex and no TV show can boast such appeal. The Bundesliga is a theatre in itself, a stage for passion. It has its actors too – sometimes a few too many – but entertainment is always a guarantee. The explanation behind its unbeatable advantage over a trip to the theatre or the cinema lies in the wisdom of Sepp Herberger: “People go to watch football because they don’t know how it will end.”
Some may argue that it’s no longer a complete uncertainty, with Bayern München going into the title race as big favourites year after year and two or three other clubs also playing in a league of their own thanks to the money received through their regular Champions League participation. Even though there’s no denying the dominance of FC Bayern, who have won 22 of the 51 Bundesliga seasons, there is still the allure of beating them. And the fact that “anyone can beat anyone in the Bundesliga” (Rehhagel) is something that we experience every two or three matchdays.
In fact, there have been five different German champions in the last ten years; more than all of Europe’s other top leagues, where the same big teams participate in an increasingly tedious title race. The Bundesliga, on the other hand, has seen many superpowers. 1. FC Köln were the first; they had the best strategy and were the side best prepared for the adventure in 1963.
The early years, which provided five different champions in five seasons (1. FC Köln, Werder Bremen, 1860 München, Eintracht Braunschweig and 1. FC Nürnberg), were followed by the start of Bayern München and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s domination, with the title going to one of those two sides every year between 1969 and 1977. Gladbach’s five title-wins came under difficult circumstances due to their small stadium and the respective financial limitations. Bayern, who benefited from the huge stadium used for the 1972 Olympics, profited from professional management and an already established sense of self-belief, which grew with every success. The spine of Maier-Beckenbauer-Müller provided those successes – and efficiency – for 15 years.
The Foals from Gladbach, meanwhile, were in full swing at the top of the Bundesliga for the best part of a decade. Günter Netzer’s long passes always found a teammate and the likes Allan Simonsen and Jupp Heynckes played their way into the hearts of every football fan. But, dictated by economic factors, Borussia never had a chance to stay at the top in the long term. Their last championship was in 1977 – after that, Bayern faced other challengers in the title race.
Borussia Dortmund (five times), Werder Bremen (four), Hamburger SV and VfB Stuttgart (both three) have all had the honour of lifting the Bundesliga trophy, while 1. FC Kaiserslautern’s two triumphs should certainly not be ignored. FCK went into the 1990/91 campaign as relegation candidates yet claimed a surprise title-win under Kalli Feldkamp. They did the same as a newly promoted side in 1998 under Otto Rehhagel, but that was nothing short of a miracle – the biggest in Bundesliga history.
VfL Wolfsburg’s championship in 2009 also had a touch of magic about it – in what was a league first, Felix Magath led a side placed ninth during the winter break to the title at the end of the season.
Jürgen Klopp managed to provide Bayern with a new competitor in a different way in Dortmund. Under their charismatic manager, whose appetite for football is clear to see in the way he lives, Borussia played fascinating, attacking football, which was rewarded with two league titles and a place in the Champions League final. That Bayern of all sides awaited them in that memorable Wembley encounter was the crowning of the Bundesliga’s milestone season. After 50 years, the Bundesliga has reached the summit both in sporting and economic terms and maintaining that for the next 50 years should be the incentive. It won’t always work out – that’s something that life in general and football in particular teaches you. After all, the ball is round so that it can change direction, even in the Bundesliga.