German soccer has struggled recently. As Bundesliga teams flounder in Europe, the national side is trying to rebuild after a devastating Euro 2004. German referees were the only thing considered world class. Not anymore.
Referee Robert Hoyzer is at the center of a match-fixing scandal
Germany may have become runner-up to Brazil in the last World Cup, but since then not much has gone right for German soccer. Last season, Bundesliga teams exited early from Europe's top club competition the Champion's League and the national side was humiliated during the Euro 2004 in Portugal last summer.
On top of that, German soccer has long had an image problem. None of the flash of Italian, Spanish or Brazilian incarnations of the game and lacking the grit and determination of the English variant was the most common assessment. At best, German soccer, which has undeniably had its moments, was considered 'workmanlike' and efficient.
That reputation of being hardworking and straightforward extended to German referees, which have been held in high standing internationally. German Football Association (DFB) ref Markus Merk was even voted the world's best in 2004, exemplifying how fair and impartial German officials were thought to be. Though Dr Merk's integrity may be beyond doubt, the same unfortunately can't be said for some of his colleagues.
Scandal on the pitch
Hamburg's Sergej Barbarez (l) challenging Robert Hoyzer in Paderborn.
Robert Hoyzer, an up-and-coming referee, recently admitted that he manipulated a German Cup match between lowly SC Paderborn and Bundesliga side Hamburg SV. Hoyzer's decisions during the cup first round match in August last year handed the result to Paderborn. He has said the corruption goes beyond his own personal misdeeds and has ties to the Croatian underworld in Germany. On Saturday, reports surfaced that three players from Berlin's Bundesliga team Hertha BSC are also being investigated.
The revelations have shaken the DFB and unleashed the country's biggest soccer scandal in three decades. Betting on fixed matches is, of course, nothing new and German soccer officials can do little against someone determinedly willing to manipulate the results for their own financial gain. But the incident couldn't have come at a worse time.
Germany is gearing up to hold the 2006 World Cup. Any sleaze that sticks to the DFB could end up tarnishing the tournament 17 months from now. There were already grumblings when Germany won the right to host the World Cup that there were backroom FIFA dealings that eventually torpedoed the chances of frontrunner South Africa.
And if German soccer doesn't have the reputation of being professional and fair, what does it have? Marketing-wise the Bundesliga certainly can't compete with England's Premier League, Italy's Serie A or Spain's La Liga. Beyond the lacking star power, Germany's top league suffers from the same preconceptions that haunt the national team: namely that German soccer isn't offensive enough and there aren't enough goals.
German national soccer team coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
Sadly, the match-fixing incident comes just as the German game seemed to be shaking off its reputation as being dull. This Bundesliga season has seen a flurry of high-scoring games and the new coach of Germany's national side, Jürgen Klinsmann, has injected a good dose of attacking soccer into the team. Hopefully he will banish forever the days when the Germans would score a goal from a free kick and then place all 11 men in the penalty box to wait out the clock.
But that could matter little if the referee scandal continues to widen. German fans, who rightly feel they have been cheated, could withdraw their support, as they did during a similar spate of match-fixing in the early 70's. DFB officials will have to move quickly to restore confidence in German soccer, both at home and abroad.
It will be a long road, but not one entirely without hope: Germany managed to win the last World Cup it hosted in 1974 only a couple of years after scandal previously tainted the country's soccer league.