Commerce, marketing, endless transfers and more kick off times than anyone can get their head around. The Bundesliga is in danger of losing its identity unless something changes, writes Tobias Oelmaier.
Karl-Heinz Körbel waves to the Frankfurt crowd after his testimonial game against a team of Bayern Munich all-stars
Karl-Heinz Körbel holds the record for the number of matches played in the Bundesliga, 602. What makes this feat even more remarkable is that he played all of those games for just one club, Eintracht Frankfurt.
Of course, this was a long time ago, Körbel's career began in the 1970s and went right through to the early 1990s. He wasn't a flashy star, although he did make six appearances for the national team. Still, even today, Eintracht fans revere their "Charly" - they believe that loyalty to a club is worth more than a World Cup-winner's medal.
Many clubs had players with whom the fans could identify back then: Gerd Zewe stood for Fortuna Düsseldorf, Katsche Schwarzenbeck or Sepp Maier for Bayern Munich. Bernhard Dietz spent almost his entire career at Dusiburg, Bernd Cullmann did the same at Cologne, Berti Vogts at Borussia Mönchengladbach, Klaus Fichtel at Schalke and Peter Nogly at Hamburg, the list goes on. And it was a rare occasion indeed that they got their boots dirty on a Sunday. The games were always at 3:30 p.m.on a Saturday and a local marching band would play two songs at halftime.
These days, few players spend more than a couple of years at one club. In fact those clubs are clubs in name only. The professional operations are separate entities from their original clubs, as limited companies are corporations listed on the stock market. Any player who gets a better offer is gone while, at the same time, the clubs regard their players more as an investment than as someone who can help them win games. And now any given Bundesliga "weekend" can stretch from Friday to Monday, with up to seven different kickoff times. This is all so that pay-TV, which pays a pretty penny for the rights, can get the biggest bang for its buck.
Players are forced to risk their fitness in order to take part in questionable preseason trips to Asia, all in the name of marketing. The coaches don't make much of a fuss, but this clearly doesn't help them properly prepare their players for the regular season. But the marketing side of things is vital, as the clubs need to generate more and more revenue to pay the ever increasing salaries. Not to do so would be to fall behind internationally.
Any team that doesn't have a potent major sponsor doesn't stand a chance - no matter how dubious that sponsor happens to be. Schalke wear the logo of Gazprom on their jerseys, Hoffenheim is ruled by SAP founder Dietmar Hopp and RB Leipzig are 99 percent owned by the Austrian energy drink company Red Bull. And now the 50+1 rule, meant to protect the clubs from being controlled by single individuals or entities, looks ready to go the way of the dinosaur. Through his wheeling and dealing and a series of tricks, Martin Kind, the patron, sponsor and president of Hannover 96, has brought the club all but under his sole control. Soon you will be able to remove the "all but" from the previous sentence.
The rise of corporate clubs
There are fewer clubs with proud tradtions in Germany's top league. Instead, in the form of Wolfsburg (VW), Hoffenheim (SAP), Leipzig (Red Bull), we are seeing more and more clubs controlled by major corporations. Most have already got used to Bayer Leverkusen, who have been around since the late 1970s. However, the Werkself still struggles to recruit a healthy fan base.
Time and time again Bayern Munich have managed to get the balancing act between commerce, success and maintaining their local identity right. Players who hailed from the region - or at least players who had been at the club for a long time - were a major part of their biggest triumphs. But now, due to the competition from abroad, even the most Bavarian of Bavarians, Thomas Müller, could find himself warming the bench. The World Cup winner won't put up with that for long. As much as the Bayern fans are happy to welcome the likes of James Rodriguez from Madrid - they would hardly accept a Müller exit lightly, particularly just two years after "football god" Bastian Schweinsteiger was forced out.
The question now is how far the supporters are willing to go along this path. How drawn out a matchday are they willing to put up with, how interchangeable the players? Sure, the stadiums are still full and the revenue is still coming in. The Bundesliga is a huge market. But all is not well. We are seeing demonstrations against all these different kickoff times, attacks on fans of corporate clubs, and monstrous Americanized halftime shows are met with jeers. The less the fans are able to identify with their club and its protagonists, the less willing they will be to foot the bill. At some point they may no longer be willing to buy that 90-euro ($106) Champions League away jersey or a pay-TV subscription. Maybe they'll prefer to reminisce about Charly Körbel instead.