Bayern are going to Qatar, Hamburg are going to Dubai and St. Pauli are going ... erm ... nowhere. The winter training camp is a ritual in German football, but it's also becoming a promotional free-for-all.
Bayern Munich are wintering in Qatar for the first time
The talk of a winter World Cup that followed the anointment of Qatar as 2022 hosts sent a flurry of concern through England’s Premier League, where league and cup matches have become a yuletide tradition.
But in Germany, give or take a few minor alterations to the fixture list, a World Cup would fit quite neatly into the Bundesliga’s four-week winter break. And for Bayern Munich players, it would probably be - in a quite literal way - business as usual. This year, they are off to Qatar for a week (January 2 - 9) of publicity, promotion and brand-building. Oh yes, and some training too.
Qatar just successfully bid for the World Cup too. Coincidence?
Bonding by the beach
This season, the Bundesliga hung up its boots on December 19, and the first match back, a tasty clash between Leverkusen and Dortmund, will take place on January 14. But the players' holidays are much shorter - for them, the four weeks off is curtailed to two, or in some cases only six days, by friendly games, indoor tournaments and the winter training camp.
The primary purpose of the winter training camp is to work off the Christmas goose and dumplings, and whip the players back into shape for the re-start. But Patrick Strasser, Bayern beat writer for the Munich-based Abendzeitung, says it's also about developing the team bond.
"It does makes sense," he told Deutsche Welle. "It's good for the players to be together for a week - they spend time with each other and with the coach and trainers."
The team also enjoys better training conditions than at home, with average January temperatures in the Middle East hovering between 17 and 22 degrees Celsius (63º - 73º Fahrenheit) - perfect for football. This is a good climate-based argument for training in the Middle East. "If you go to Spain or Portugal at the beginning of January, it's not unusual to for it to rain for five days straight," says Strasser, who has often accompanied Bayern to Dubai.
But there is of course another, perhaps more powerful argument than meteorology and male bonding.
Follow the money
"I think they quite enjoy going to the camps,” Strasser insists, saying the players like the structure. Plus, “the sponsorship outings provide a bit of variety."
Bayern Munich, along with Hamburg, have grown accustomed to wintering in the businessman's oases in the Middle East in the past six or seven years. For Hamburg, who are off to Dubai from January 2 - 7, this is mainly because they are sponsored by the Emirates airline. Bayern also used to go to Dubai, but this season they have defected to Qatar, nominally for conditional reasons - it is one hour less flight time and one hour less time difference.
"It's always a question of sponsoring and invitations," says Strasser. "They've been invited to the Aspire academy, which of course wants to be able to say that Bayern were there too."
Aspire hopes to build a sporting empire in the coming decades
The Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence in Doha - an elite, state-of-the-art sports school with a fearsome, vaguely Masonic winged logo - has made a business plan out of using top European football clubs to promote itself. They shot a commercial featuring Barcelona star Leo Messi a few months back, and Bayern, along with Barcelona and Inter Milan, took part in November's Aspire4Sport conference in the Aspire Dome in Doha.
One of Aspire4Sport's "Platinum" sponsors, incidentally, is the Qatar Foundation - owned by the Qatar Sports Investment company, the filthy rich consortium that recently persuaded Barcelona to wear their green tree logo on their shirts next season in a deal worth 165 million euros ($217 million).
The more you trace the sponsorship deals and partnerships that tie the football world together, the more you realize that Qatar's successful World Cup bid was merely the crowning achievement of a long-term plan to use vast piles of cash to build a football culture in the Middle East.
Training and publicity
The choice of Qatar did rub a few football purists the wrong way, not least Bayern coach Louis van Gaal, who described the decision as "unbelievable" shortly after it was made. "Football should always been the top priority. This is not the right choice," he added. "I expect he'll be clever enough not to make the same statements in his press conferences in Doha," says Strasser.
But what does this mean for Bayern players during their week-long trip to a sandy peninsula in the Persian Gulf? The training is divided into two 90-minute units every day - one in the morning and one in the evening. A friendly game has been arranged for January 8 against a selection of Middle East players.
In between this taxing schedule, the players are shuttled off to various promotional events. On Bayern's trips to Dubai in the past, these have included photo-opportunities with the local tourism minister, and visits to the zoo or the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
Sponsors say jump, Bayern Munich says 'how high'?
As for who pays for what, Strasser says, "It's not clear, and won't be revealed." But he thinks that Lufthansa, as one of Bayern's main sponsors, will cover the flights, while Bayern will pay their own accommodation - some cheap hostel called the Grand Hyatt. Then, Strasser reckons, the team gets the use of Aspire's training camp for free.
All the clubs have to do in exchange is send their players on "representative appearances." One Hamburg reporter, who is accompanying Hamburg to Dubai, points out that such appearances are all part of the job. HSV are travelling to Dubai on the invitation of Emirates airlines, who are paying for the complete package, training camp and all. The club will even get a payment for the friendly match they are playing there against a local team.
It's not like they only get paid for playing football. Nice work if you can get it.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Matt Hermann