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Home to the Stars

Nick AmiesDecember 23, 2007

When Bayern Munich bought some of the world's most wanted players, it looked like game over. But those who rushed to crown Bayern before a ball was even kicked forgot that the league already had its own superstars.

Bayern Munich players Luca Toni and Franck Ribery after signing for the Bavarian club
Bayern's Luca Toni and Franck Ribery joined a league slowly recruiting superstar playersImage: AP

Before this season got underway, everyone was braced for the usual blast of arrogance from the south of Germany. But instead of a warm front of imperiousness emanating from the area around Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena, the rest of the country was hit by an icy blast of realism.

The message from Bavaria was the same as in previous years but this time the delivery and reception were different. When general manager Uli Hoeness said that Bayern would soon be so far off into the distance, their rivals would need binoculars to see them, he said so without the omnipresent braggadocio but with a cold assertion. In response, the rest of Germany just sadly nodded in agreement and started ruminating about who'd be Munich's closest rivals.

The reason for Hoeness' brusque dismissal of the other 17 teams in the Bundesliga and the country's acceptance of his statement as fact could be summed up in three words: Klose, Ribery, Toni.

Unprecedented spending spree

Munich's Miroslav Klose celebrates after scoring
The signing of the prolific Klose put fear into Munich's rivalsImage: AP

Bayern's unprecedented summer spending spree seemed to have sealed the championship deal before a ball had even been kicked in anger. The acquisition of the German national team's most prolific striker, France's Player of the Year and an Italian World Cup-winning forward was more than just a statement of intent; it was a declaration of closure. Game over, in other words.

Yet, with the Bundesliga now tucked up in its thermal underwear and slippers for the winter, Bayern's trailblazing early league form is fading like the topic of a drunken conversation over Christmas turkey leftovers.

Even though Bayern have lost just once -- a 3-1 reverse in Stuttgart -- Ottmar Hitzfeld's side reverted to type as the season wore on with a methodical but slow-paced and ultimately blunt style of play. As the winter break neared, Bayern recorded four drab goalless draws in their last seven league fixtures against deep-lying teams whose sole aim was to smother, thwart and claim a point.

Bayern's gallop reduced to a trot

Bayern Munich's coach Ottmar Hitzfeld
Hitzfeld's honeymoon period is well and truly overImage: AP

The thoroughbred which was the only entry in a seemingly one-horse race lost its way and finally plodded to the midway point like a retired carthorse in need of a breather. Despite ending the first half of the season on top of the heap, Bayern Munich's gallop has been reduced to a trudge.

"It could end up a two-horse race," Uli Hoeness recently conceded.

While those who took great pain from agreeing with Hoeness at the start of the season will now be celebrating the fact that the Bavarian galacticos have been exposed as mere mortals, a more honorable celebration should be taking place. Bayern may have come a little unstuck but the fact that they lead the Bundesliga on goal difference alone at the winter break should be heralded as a sign that German soccer is alive and well.

The Bundesliga is often ridiculed as the poor relation of the English Premiership, Spain's Primera Liga and Serie A in Italy. The soccer is viewed as below most European standards, the spectacle derided and the glamour deemed non-existent.

All of which contributed to the view that a sizeable chunk of Bayern's fortune thrown at a trio of international stars would lead to a procession. With such poor opposition being lined-up for them, it was no surprise that the lavishly put-together Bavarian giants were expected to walk it.

Rival stars driving Bayern's competitors

Werder Bremen's Diego celebrates after scoring
Diego's second season at Bremen is eclipsing his firstImage: AP

The league at the halfway point, however, tells a different story. Bayern, and the majority of non-partisan observers, have underestimated the other teams and the impact of many of the other international stars which have slowly contributed to the Bundesliga's rehabilitation.

Far from being a boring one-team march, this season's Bundesliga is looking like a competition worthy of attention with world stars catching the eye.

Inspired by Diego, the league's top playmaker and joint top scorer with nine goals, Werder Bremen have their own international stars driving their championship challenge.

Bremen looked to have sold their best chance of recapturing the league title when Klose joined Bayern in the summer but while Munich were courting the big names of the 2006 World Cup, Bremen snapped up Boubacar Sanogo from Hamburg and Carlos Alberto from Porto. The result is a second-placed team winning games with intercontinental flair.

Third-placed Hamburg are also hot on Munich's heels thanks to another of the league's superstars.

Bringing more quality to the league

Hamburg's Rafael van der Vaart
Van der Vaart is one of the league's shining lightsImage: AP

The diminutive and prolific Rafael van der Vaart was a coup signing when he moved from Ajax in 2005. While the Dutchman's decision to come to Germany was a shock to many of those expecting a transfer to Italy or Spain, van der Vaart has shown why he favored a German challenge by helping transform HSV's fortunes and bringing more quality to the league.

The Bundesliga may not be able to boast as many big names as other leagues but those who have taken a chance in Germany have given the Bundesliga a dash of the flair and panache at times, certainly more than in recent years, and have contributed to the sold-out stadiums and thrilling match day atmosphere which are now back in fashion.

With these world-class stars spread throughout the chasing pack, Bayern Munich's coronation is on hold and the Bundesliga is a lot better for it. As a result, the future for German club soccer looks a lot rosier than it has for a number of years.