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Bundesliga Loses Another Top Star in Van der Vaart

Rafael van der Vaart's transfer to Real Madrid came as a surprise to no one. But the departure of the former Hamburg playmaker shows once again that Bayern are the only Bundesliga club that can keep world-class talent.

Rafael van der Vaart waves to fans

Rafael van der Vaart has waved bye-bye to Hamburg

Hamburg confirmed that their best player was leaving on Monday, August 4, ending a year of speculation in which the question was not whether van der Vaart was going, but when, to whom and for how much.

Because of a clause in the Dutchman's contract, which would have allowed him to leave for 1.5 million euros ($2.3 million) next season, Hamburg had to sell. The 14-16 million euro deal, depending on how Real performs with van der Vaart, is about half of his estimated market value -- the best Hamburg could do under the circumstances.

Van der Vaart has described the move as a dream come true, while the man who now won't be his coach, Dutchman Martin Jol, told Germany's Bild newspaper he considered the playmaker "one of the best players in the past 25 years."

Hamburg's midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, right, is attacked by Leverkusen's Sascha Dum

The playmaker scored 29 goals in 74 matches for his ex-employers

The 25-year-old playmaker, who's already won 58 caps for Holland, was certainly one of the best Hamburg has seen in the last quarter-century. With him the German side qualified for international competition three years on the trot.

Significantly, when van der Vaart was out injured for the first half of the 2006-7 season, Hamburg had the second worst record in the league -- when he came back in the second season half, Hamburg were second-best.

His departure thus likely turns Hamburg from a Champions League contender to an also-ran in a transition year. It also underscores the fact that, lamentably and with one notable exception, the Bundesliga cannot compete for the services of the world's soccer elite.

No More Mighty Mice

Kevin Keegan in Hambrug dress

Kevin Keegan and his amazing Afro-styled hair played for Hamburg in the late '70s

Things weren't always this way for Hamburg and other comparably sized German clubs.

In 1977, for instance, Hamburg landed a spectacular transfer, attracting English striker Kevin Keegan away from Liverpool.

Mighty Mouse, as the diminutive forward was quickly nicknamed, won the European Player of the Year Award with Hamburg and led the team to a league title and a berth in the final of the old European club championship. (They lost to Nottingham Forest).

PSV player Carlos Salcido, left, duels for the ball with Liverpool player Steven Gerrard during

But in 2008 stars like Steven Gerrard give the Bundesliga a miss

What a difference three decades make. The mere thought of Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres leaving Liverpool for Hamburg is enough to draw guffaws from any football fan.

And Hamburg aren't alone in perennially bumping their heads on what amounts to a glass ceiling. In the next couple of seasons, Bremen and Stuttgart are likely to find themselves in the same situation with respect to stars Diego and Mario Gomez as Hamburg was with van der Vaart.

Bayern Munich, alone, is capable of not only signing but retaining players of the top caliber. So why have the rest of the Bundesliga's ambitious sides become so unattractive?

Money + Success = More Success

Franck Ribery and Luca Toni

Bayern's record of achievement attracts the big names

Real Madrid is one of the wealthiest clubs in the world, and even the other giants of the game -- as Manchester United are finding out right now with Cristiano Ronaldo -- have a hard time staving off the Spaniards' advances when a player has caught their fancy.

But perhaps more important than money is the fact that no Bundesliga side other than Bayern has been able to establish its credentials as a regular contender for the prize of prizes -- a Champions League title.

That's down to Bayern's double-advantage policy of buying up stars from other Bundesliga clubs, simultaneously strengthening their own squad while weakening their domestic rivals.

Michael Ballack, center, soccer player of Leverkusen, shoots

Leverkusen fell apart when Ballack turned his back on them

Case in point: Bayer Leverkusen. In 2002, they reached the Champions League final, losing somewhat unluckily to Real Madrid. As a club backed by the financial might of Germany's biggest pharmaceutical company, they looked like a decent bet to jump into Europe's elite.

Instead Bayern lured two of Leverkusen's mainstays, midfielders Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto, into jumping ship. As a result, Bayer Leverkusen barely avoided relegation in 2003 and has never even qualified for the Champions League again.

Moreover, within that time span, no other German team other than those two has made a Champions League semifinal, let alone a final. And that's what club soccer is all about for the world's best.

So while Bayern contends for glory year in, year out with the likes of Frank Ribery, Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose, clubs like Hamburg are fated to losing players of van der Vaart's caliber, just as they should be poised to make the jump to the next level.

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