Bundesliga MD 31 Preview: Mainz vs. Bayern
“Emotions” might be one of the first things coming to mind for many football fans when they try to put into words what binds them to their sport. Unforgettable moments, close contests with the fiercest rivals, dramatic decisions at the last minute. Just like 2001, when Bayern became Bundesliga champions with literally the very last kick of the game. When Patrik Andersson brought tears of joy to himself, his team and the fans. Joy and sorrow – in football the two are often not far apart, and so it was the Knappen who on that day in 2001 for only four minutes revelled in the joy of being Bundesliga champions for the first time in ages. Andersson ruined their dream.
Not only from a neutral point of view this was a very special moment. Depending on which generation one belongs to, the 2001 championship will also bring back great memories for many Bayern fans. Today, such ecstasy about winning a championship hardly seems possible any more. At least for me. And at this point, for once, I choose to speak about myself and my personal feelings. I cannot speak for the whole spectrum of Bayern fans. Opinions and individual experiences are too varied when it comes to such moments.
But I for one am not much more than taking note of this ninth championship in a row. The coronavirus pandemic may have played its part. Other issues have moved into the focus of my life, the empty stadiums no longer possess any charm for me after initial curiosity about how the new situation would feel and what the players would say. But that is not all. Even the seventh championship in a row was a strange one for me. On the one hand, the stage was set: Bayern had closed a nine-point gap on Dortmund mainly owing to a terrific second half of the season. But nothing was decided yet on the last matchday.
Technically, this year presents me with a situation I have been longing for for quite some time. Championships do have the ability to be beautiful when they are won in a dominant and clear manner. I was very enthusiastic about the titles under Heynckes and Guardiola. Every game in the Bundesliga seemed like a piece of art, despite some runaway victories. Maybe in retrospect I am romanticising things a little, but that is how I felt back then.
I cannot say exactly when the point of saturation was reached for me. Already under Ancelotti, I think my enthusiasm for ordinary Bundesliga games started to wane to some extent. But the seventh championship in a row is the one that made me realise that things cannot really go on like this. Even though Robben and Ribéry had a fantastic farewell that you could not have conceived of any better in fiction, even though Bayern were under pressure in the very last game and Dortmund were doing their homework in the parallel game, and even though Frankfurt had been able to turn up the heat for a brief spell: I didn’t get really emotional. There was joy in me, but it was more because of the great farewell of the two legends (and also Rafinha).
Seven championships in a row? Eight? Nine? As I wrote before: I take note. Not because the achievement is not big enough for me anymore. I have nothing but great appreciation for the players and the whole staff. From a sporting perspective, I have nothing but admiration for the attitude with which the players, particularly those who have been there from the beginning, give their all year after year to win this title. I also appreciate the run from a historical perspective.
But that is it. I cannot ignore the fact that the business of football as demonstrated yet again by yet another UEFA Champions League reform and the almost brazen attempt by some clubs to bypass it and create a Super League, is one that allows the rich to get richer and richer and the gap to the small clubs in the national competitions to get larger and larger. Even this push of the 12 clubs for their own closed league will not lead to any consequences. They are too important for UEFA. “Money League” would probably be more accurate – and that is not even meant disrespectfully.
To be honest, I will not even try to conceive of alternative solutions in this article. That is outside my sphere of competence, although the discussion can be very exciting. What I want to say, however, is that for me as a fan, things cannot go on like this. Sure, as an author and blogger I do also benefit from the strong commercialisation of football in the last decades. But there are more than these two perspectives and there are also positions in between.
I do not want to hold FC Bayern (mainly) responsible for this situation. There were and are enough arguments in the last 40 or 50 years that their supremacy is mostly deserved. It is also part of the truth that clubs like Borussia Dortmund have not managed to close the gap for various reasons. And other big teams have also not been able to keep up with the changing nature of football despite good starting positions. But that realization does not get us anywhere today.
But let me stay briefly with Bayern’s main rivals of recent years: Besides the many things they could hardly influence, the long search for a successor for Jürgen Klopp and a at times suboptimal transfer policy was something that was within their powers to do better. But here, too, I am left with the realization that Bayern are the only club that can afford to make mistakes – because their virtually unassailable lead allows them to. Not even Leipzig, with a strong financial backer, can afford to make even one major mistake. A season under Niko Kovač that is dotted with weak performances still ends with the championship. Even a season like this one, in which the coach’s intense footballing system, internal strive among key personnel, a lack of summer preparation and new players, most of whom seem to have hardly ever arrived at the club, put enough obstacles in the way clearly ends with the championship. A club like Dortmund would probably be set back for years in a similar situation. Even worse, they need a perfect season to become champions, and even then it is not guaranteed.
And what happens then? Then the top players join another club to take the next step. The usual career path. This is all part of the problem. Bayern have at times lost one or two players they would have liked to stay, but these departures have only rarely hit the club as hard as the same happening at the competition. The causes for this are certainly varied and not everything is due to the warped nature of the “business of football”, but the result is that FC Bayern today are in a position of power in Germany that can no longer be realistically challenged.
I reiterate once again, I appreciate Bayern’s sporting achievements. But I no longer feel emotions. On the contrary, as a fan I feel how I am slowly drifting away bit by bit. And the outlook does not give me hope for the future. Even if RB Leipzig or Borussia Dortmund one day become champions: At least eight of the next ten titles will go to Bayern, unless there is going to be some transformational change. And eight out of ten is still an optimistic estimate from a neutral’s point of view.
Instead, however, in the coming years professional football will probably continue to undergo reforms that are apt to fill the pockets of the superclubs and weaken the national leagues. I, at any rate, find it difficult to envisage a reform that is aimed at strengthening the domestic competitions. I would be very surprised at the very least. The focus in football has shifted too much away from the sport. Not just today or in the past ten years. It already started in the 70s and 80s. We are just experiencing one peak (or nadir, depending on your perspective) after another. And I will be honest: the Champions League clashes with the other superclubs, they still thrill me. Great football is still great, despite all the dirty business surrounding it. But would they also thrill me if I experienced them every week? I cannot answer that conclusively. Especially since I still feel attachment to my personal Bundesliga experiences and would feel regret if Bayern outgrew this league even more than they already have.
But before plans for a next iteration of a Super League have the chance to surface, Bayern will first win their ninth championship in a row. They have another tough nut to crack this weekend. Mainz have turned into an unpleasant opponent under Bo Svensson, an opponent who can make the spaces tight and are quick in offensive transition. They are the current team in form in the Bundesliga, sitting in fifth place in the Rückrunde table and have put themselves in a very good position to avoid the drop meanwhile. But if there are no surprises, Bayern will be Bundesliga champions by the end of the match. This is undoubtedly an impressive success that cannot and should not be taken for granted, especially in this tough COVID-19 season. It is a success for which I take off all the hats I can find – as the example of Juventus in Italy currently shows, supremacy alone is not everything. In any case, if Bayern’s championship works out as early as this weekend, I will respectfully take note of it.