Bayern Munich on course for quadruple after third-tier title
Over the past eight seasons, the Bundesliga has become accustomed to seeing Bayern Munich players dancing around and celebrating on the pitch on the final day, covered in confetti and drenched in wheat beer.
On Saturday, Germany's third division got a taste of that as well. Despite a 1-0 defeat in Kaiserslautern, results elsewhere saw Bayern's under-23s crowned champions, putting the club on course for a quadruple of Bundesliga, 3. Liga, German Cup and Champions League which seemed improbable at the start of the season.
Certainly, few would have predicted that Bayern II, coached by Sebastian Hoeness, nephew of former president Uli, would march all the way to the third division title after only being promoted from the Bavarian Regional League last season.
But that's as far as the journey can go. German Football Association (DFB) regulations stipulate that a club's second team cannot compete in Bundesliga 2 while its first team is in the Bundesliga. That's good news for Eintracht Braunschweig, who finished third but have now been promoted automatically, and also for Ingolstadt, who finished fourth but now have a shot at promotion via a playoff.
But for the rest, Bayern's title raises eyebrows and the debate over the right of Bundesliga clubs' second-string teams to play in the league pyramid has reemerged. Though Bayern's reserves may be colloquially known as "amateurs", they are anything but.
Distortion of the competition?
Nine reserve players were considered good enough to be listed in Bayern's Bundesliga matchday squad at least once this season. Dutch striker Joshua Zirkzee, 19, made the biggest impact, scoring four important goals for the first team and acting as a competent replacement for Robert Lewandowski. He also started ten games in the 3. Liga, scoring two goals.
Defender Lars Lukas Mai also made the first team squad regularly, while French midfielder Michael Cuisance, who cost €12 million when he joined from Borussia Mönchengladbach at the start of the season, scored the winner in a key game against Ingolstadt. Jann-Fiete Arp, considered one of Germany's hottest prospects when he joined Bayern from Hamburg in 2019, recovered from a broken wrist to make 12 reserve team appearances.
According to the online portal Transfermarkt, the total value of Bayern's reserve team squad this season was €14.8 million ($16.7 million) – almost two times greater than the next most expensive squad (Kaiserslautern - €7.73 million). On the flipside, of course, those players might be called up for first team duty at short notice, leaving the reserves short, but the perceived advantages go further than just squad composition.
Under the current 3. Liga broadcasting deal, the 20 clubs receive around €16 million in TV money between them (excluding Bundesliga reserve teams), leaving most battling for survival on a shoe-string budget, while reserve teams are funded by their Bundesliga parent clubs, arguably taking places in the pyramid away from other clubs.
With TV money limited, third and fourth division clubs are also more reliant on ticket sales and other matchday income than their second or first division counterparts. Yet Bundesliga reserve sides tend to bring fewer away fans, especially when the first team is playing on the same day.
More authentic football – for players and fans
Here, however, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are exceptions. Both are big enough to attract sizeable crowds for the home team, and even have sections of their fanbase who are dedicated to following the reserves.
In Dortmund, for example, the so-called "Ultras von die Amateure" (sic) create choreographies and offer constant vocal support to BVB II, who finished ninth in the fourth-tier Regional League West this season. In February, 70 Dortmund supporters even organized a trip to England for a UEFA Youth League match against Derby County.
For those fans, supporting the reserves offers things that modern-day Bundesliga football doesn't. In Munich, for instance, 200-250 regular supporters enjoy the greater unpredictability, with Bayern not favorites to win every week.
"There's no guarantee that we'll beat every opponent, and that excitement is often missing as a Bayern fan," says Alex from the Bayern fan organization Club Nr. 12. "Furthermore, we feel closer to the team, and there are no 'event' fans like at the [Allianz] Arena. The support is different than at first team games, often more spontaneous and more emotional."
On the pitch, there are also significant benefits from the point of view of Bundesliga clubs. Since the generation of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller, Bayern's homegrown production line seemed to have stalled.
With the under-23s stranded in the fourth division, the step up to the first team was too big. So Bayern invested, unveiling a new training campus in 2017 at a cost of €70 million. Last season, the reserves were promoted to the 3. Liga. The under-19s are also top of their league.
In the likes of Zirkzee, the first team are already reaping the rewards, while Bayern earned almost €10 million last year from the sale of young talents who didn't quite make it.
The future of second teams
But it's not inevitable that others will follow suit. The maintenance of a professional team in the third tier costs between €4-8 million – the sort of money that smaller Bundesliga clubs don't have lying around. There are a dozen Bundesliga reserve teams across the regional fourth tier who have little chance of promotion, and several Bundesliga clubs including Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt have scrapped their reserve teams, preferring to send young players out on loan.
Bayern's investment is paying off, although the results suggest they've also benefited hugely from the coronavirus hiatus. Before the break, Bayern II were seventh. After the restart, they lost only twice, suggesting the professional environment and facilities at Bayern's campus were at least advantageous. Even their fans are taking the 3. Liga title with a pinch of salt.
"Ultimately, the [pre-coronavirus] table has a much greater sporting value," read one fanzine ahead of the final matchday. "Pandemic winners would be a dubious title at the very least."