Bayern Munich have won six straight Bundesliga titles, but unprecedented runs of success are becoming commonplace across Europe. DW’s Matt Ford looks into the effect of serial title winners.
When Bayern Munich's victorious players appeared on the balcony of Munich's town hall to celebrate their 2018 Bundesliga title, they could have been forgiven for feeling slightly underwhelmed.
Below on the city's main Marienplatz square, around 10,000 fans had gathered to greet their heroes. Not a small number, but not really a big one either. Not when 75,000 sell out the Allianz Arena every two weeks and when over 30,000 took to the same square to protest against Bavaria's controversial new police law a week earlier.
There was a weary air of familiarity and predictability about it. After all, this was the sixth year in a row that this event had taken place – but it could be worse.
On the other side of the Alps in Turin, Juventus were celebrating their seventh straight Serie A win, the same number of consecutive titles as Celtic in Scotland and Ludogorets in Bulgaria.
In Portugal, the league title has been shared between Benfica and FC Porto since 2003. In Greece, Olympiacos have won the Super League in all but three years since 1997, with AEK Athens winning last season's title thanks in part to rivals' points deductions.
In Croatia, fans hoped that Dinamo Zagreb's hegemony since 2006 had come to an end when HNK Rijeka won the 2017 championship, thanks to investment from Italian businessman Gabriele Volpi. Normal service was resumed, however, when Dinamo reclaimed their title last season.
In Switzerland, FC Basel had won eight in a row until new Eintracht Frankfurt coach Adi Hütter led Young Boys Bern to their first title since 1986 last season. In Belarus, BATE Borisov have won 12 in a row.
Domination in the smaller leagues
The common denominator linking the serial champions of Europe's smaller leagues is the UEFA Champions League – or rather, the money earned from participation in it. Of UEFA's 55 member associations though, 38 are only awarded one place in the Champions League qualifying round. A further nine are only allocated two spots.
Many of those clubs will be knocked out in the preliminary rounds but, for those who make it to the 32-team group stage, it is pay day. This season, each club competing in the group stage will receive a minimum of €15.25 million ($17.66m), which can be boosted by performance-related amounts (€2.7m for a win and €900,000 for a draw) and further payments based on ten-year coefficient rankings.
According to research by the New York Times in February, Olympiacos have earned over €108m ($125 million) from their Champions League appearances over the past five seasons. Basel have received €58m in recent years, Borisov €43m and Dinamo Zagreb €47.5m – substantial sums in leagues where double and triple figure transfer fees are not the norm. The champions use that money to bolster their squads further, stroll to the title again and the cycle is repeated.
Closed shop in the major leagues
In Europe's major leagues, a slightly different situation has developed with top clubs benefitting not just from Champions League money but from lucrative global sponsorships and the sale of domestic and international broadcasting rights.
In Spain, up until 2016, Real Madrid and Barcelona negotiated their own television deals, enabling them to hoover up 33% of La Liga's total broadcasting revenues between the two of them. A new collective model introduced in 2016 has addressed that imbalance somewhat but there is a still a huge gulf between the €146.2m and €140m earned by Barca and Real respectively and the €39.6m received by the likes of Alaves and Leganes.
This weekend, England's top flight goes into its 27th season since its rebrand as the Premier League in 1992. Since then, it has been largely dominated by Manchester United (13 titles) whose 1990s renaissance under Sir Alex Ferguson conveniently benefited from the vast increase in broadcasting revenue and international exposure.
Manchester United's dominance has waned in recent years, but Sir Alex Ferguson and Co. changed the face of the Premier League.
Intermittent challenges came from Arsène Wenger's Arsenal but it took big money takeovers to produce opponents which could compete with and then ultimately overtake United.
In 2003, Chelsea were bought by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and have since won five titles plus the Champions League and the Europa League. In 2008, Manchester City were taken over by the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi under whose ownership the club have won three Premier League titles.
Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool have taken longer, more "organic" routes back to the top but are still yet to prove themselves as consistent title challengers. Without external investment, that may not ever be the case.
Back in Germany, the 50+1 rule prevents external investors from acquiring majority stakes in Bundesliga clubs.
Critics argue that the rule puts German clubs at a self-imposed disadvantage when it comes to competing both domestically with Bayern Munich and internationally in Europe. Advocates say the rule protects clubs from dubious investors, pointing to the fates of TSV 1860 Munich at home and clubs such as Blackpool and Coventry City abroad.
There is no such ruling in Austria, where the dominance of FC Red Bull Salzburg has led to the introduction of a new format.
Since the takeover of SV Austria Salzburg in 2005, the new RB franchise has won nine of the subsequent 13 league titles, including the last five. Interest in the league has shrunk accordingly, with average attendances dropping from almost 8,500 to less than 6,500 in the same period.
This season, the league has been expanded from ten to 12 teams who will all play each other home and away before the league is split into two groups of six. The top half, the "champions" group, will then play each other home and away in order to determine the champion and the European participants.
In the bottom half, the "qualification" group, the bottom team will be relegated while the top team will enter a play-off against the fourth and fifth-placed teams from the champions group for the final Europa League place.
The new system is the brainchild of Dutch consultancy firm Hypercube who were responsible for, among other things, the restructuring of Belgium's Jupiler Pro League in 2008.
In principal, the format is intended to help the rest of the league close the gap on Red Bull Salzburg by forcing them to play their closest challengers two more times each, while also retaining an element of tension in mid-table. But the new model has its critics.
"The chance of catching Salzburg is perhaps five or ten per cent higher," said Goran Djuricin, the rather unenthused coach of Rapid Vienna, who last won the title in 2008.
Dietmar Kühbauer, head coach of minnows St. Pölten, also sees an economic disadvantage for smaller clubs who will now only have two games a season against the likes of Rapid and RB Salzburg, as opposed to the four games previously. "For the smaller clubs, it would have been better to keep the old format," he said.
'The others need to get stronger'
If there is appetite for reform in Germany's Bundesliga, it's not been backed up by action.
Last season saw considerable protests from traditionally-minded match-going supporters against the proposed abolition of the 50+1 rule before, in March, the German Football League (DFL) voted officially to retain it.
Meanwhile, Hannover 96 president Martin Kind has officially appealed against the rejection of his application for an exemption from the rule.
Former Bayern Munich head coach Jupp Heynckes believes the onus is on the competitiors to close the gap on the German record titlehodlers
"Reforms? No, they'll have to think of something else," commented former Bayern Munich coach Jupp Heynckes. "The others just need to get stronger."
Or Bayern will need to get weaker. And as the Bavarians begin a key season under new coach Niko Kovac, neutrals and challengers alike will be hoping that the transition doesn't run quite as smoothly as Bayern hope.
Otherwise, there'll be another title celebration on Marienplatz next May that no-one really wants to attend.