Wednesday, April 24, 2013

It's not Munich or Dortmund. It's Germany.

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have probably caused the first massive shift in the center European soccer power since Barcelona beat Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final. Bayern's 4-0 demolition of the Blaugrana, coupled with Dortmund's brilliance against Real Madrid have called many to say that the best league in Europe is the German Bundesliga, taking over from La Liga. This column is not condemn that view, it's to enhance it, so far as to say the Bundesliga's climb to the top began far before these last 2 days. But how long will this stay atop the European perch last for Germany? I for one welcome our new German soccer overlords. 

The 2 massive home statements by Germany's 2 best clubs has been the cherry on top of the Bundesliga's coronation, which has been in the works since 2010. After Bayern Munich last won the Champions League in 2001, the Bundesliga began to slip on the continental scale, as Spain continued to rule, England rose dramatically, and Italy was winning plaudits. No German team made the final again until Bayern did in 2010 when they lost to Inter Milan, but they beat Manchester United in the process, making a statement of intent for German football. Borussia Dortmund were down in debt and close to bankruptcy in mid 2005, before they organically built themselves up again to where they are now... reckoning as one of Europe's biggest teams. You cannot pinpoint when the rise began to happen, but the reclamation in Dortmund, plus Bayern eliminating a European titan at the time was a statement of intent. Even when Schalke were demolished in the semifinals by the same Manchester United team one year later, something had been proved. Bayern's loss in the final to Chelsea last year seems now to have only been a one year delay in the inevitable coronation.

Talent from the Bundesliga has now been plucked by the top teams in both Spain and England, even more so than the raiding from within, showing how far the quality of the league has come. Think of players like Shinji Kagawa, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Edin Dzeko even, who all have played major roles for their teams after big money moves away from the Bundesliga. Think even of Arsenal's German contingent, and the transfer rumors surrounding players like Gotze, Reus, and others. And all the talent has been grown organically, or through minor signings that turn out to become major surprises, like Robert Lewandowski. And with talents like Mario Gotze deciding to move up in Germany, rather than to places like Manchester City or Chelsea, the strength of the Bundesliga continues to show itself. But the players have built slowly towards the defining moment of the rise of the Bundesliga: Pep Guardiola's decision (far more important than Lebron's).

Pep Guardiola could have ended his sabbatical anywhere he wanted, as he is the hottest managerial commodity Europe has seen in years. Instead of choosing the mega-bucks of City or Chelsea, the prestige of Manchester United, or the temperament of owners in Milan, or now even rescuing his own Barcelona team, he chose to go to Munich, on the coattails of one of the best managers in German football, Jupp Heyneckes. To make it even "worse", Bayern could be on the verge of a treble, making Pep's job of moving Bayern Munich forward even harder. That announcement says a lot about where the Bundesliga is, compared to the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A. 

The Bundesliga is not solely strong on the strength of the 2 giants, teams like Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Stuttgart and others have plenty of clout when playing in Europe, and are developing their own special talents. Schalke have a wunderkid in Julian Draxler, and Lewis Holtby was no slouch either. Leverkusen have had the perilous task of holding onto prolific striker Andre Schurrle from being plucked by bigger teams (even though it looks like Chelsea will), and German teams continue to produce a staggering amount of great young talent after all the investment in the youth set-up (part of the reason US fans know names like Fabian Johnson, and Timmy Chandler). That repletion rate, even for teams like Dortmund, will be why the Bundesliga's stay atop Europe's perch will be long, despite comparisons of this Dortmund team to Ajax squads of the mid 90's. 

Since the Bundesliga has the best of both the Premier League, with good quality European teams behind the Champion (yes I am including City), and La Liga with the top 2 teams being legendary, their dominance of the European scene might be longer than what either of the 2 other leagues could muster. Even if Germany's rise has coincided with the decline of Serie A, and that plays a major role for you, you have to give credit to German teams for their homegrown initiatives to move on the decline to their south. English teams could learn a think or two on how to deal with debt and climb the ladder like Borussia Dortmund has. Even if you are worried about Dortmund's squad of wunderkids getting picked apart, their ability to replace players like Kagawa, and even Lucas Barrios has been impressive, and Jurgen Klopp isn't a hot managerial candidate for big jobs everywhere for nothing.

The coronation of the Bundesliga this week has been well deserved, but these 2 matches were the cherry on top of the sundae that has been building for quite some time. 

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