Does the Bundesliga lack the financial strength to succeed in Europe?

The 2008/09 Bundesliga season is set to get underway in a couple of weeks, but instead of looking forward to whether someone will be able to wrangle the title away from Bayern Munich, the league, its clubs, and its fans may be looking more towards the future right now.

Currently, the league, the German government, and pay-TV company Premiere are locked in a three-way battle over the Bundesliga’s exclusive TV rights for the future, a battle that also has a great impact on the fans.

The country’s Federal Cartel Office ruled last Thursday that highlights from the Bundesliga’s Saturday matches have to be available on free TV soon after the end of the day’s action and said that the big-money deal between the Bundesliga and Premiere has to be renegotiated.

As it stands, the league is none too happy about having to cater to the fans at the expense of potentially valuable revenue. The more highlights that are available on free TV = the less money that Premiere has to fork out for a deal = less revenue on the whole for the Bundesliga’s clubs, who currently split the TV monies relatively equally.

On the other side are the fans, who, according to the ruling, will have to wait a little longer to see the matchday highlights; in addition, the ones who subscribe to pay TV channels will have to fork out extra money if the deal is done.

In the midst of it all, Bayern Munich chief exec Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is stepping up in ‘defense’ of the league and its clubs, saying that the Bundesliga’s lack of financial strength negatively impacts the league’s chances of producing a Champions League winner in the near future.

Does Rummenigge have a point?

Talent hasn’t, isn’t, and never will be an issue in Germany, and neither is being able to keep most of the country’s top talent inside the country’s borders as shown by the club breakdown of their Euro 2008 squad, but when it comes to being able to match the buying power of say, a Real Madrid, Chelsea, or Manchester United, even the Bundesliga’s biggest club may well lag a little behind.

Last summer, Bayern made their club-record signing when they landed Marseille’s Franck Ribery for €25m. In the meantime, we’re hearing about Chelsea wanting to buy Kaka for €150m, Real Madrid trying to swing a €80m deal for Cristiano Ronaldo, and Tottenham looking for Manchester United to fork out well over £30m for Dimitar Berbatov.

And for homegrown talents? While Darren Bent fetched a nearly £17m fee when he moved from Charlton to Tottenham last summer, Wayne Rooney went for nearly £30m, and others like Michael Carrick, David Bentley, and Gareth Barry are commanding fees pushing the £15-20m mark. Miroslav Klose, one of the more proven goalscorers on the European circuit, though he was 29 at the time, went for only €15m. Lukas Podolski went for only €10m when he moved from Cologne to Bayern in 2006, whereas he’d probably have fetched nearly twice as much if he played in England.

More than anything though, what might sting Rummenigge the most is that German clubs, most notably his own, don’t have nearly the same prowess that they did in Europe not too long ago.

In the 70s and 80s, before West and East Germany became one, German clubs, especially the ones from the West, were a regular fixture in European finals. Bayern Munich won three straight European Cup titles from 1974-76, Hamburg SV claimed the crown in 1983, and there were runner-up finishes in 1977 (Borussia Monchengladbach), 1982 (Bayern Munich), and 1987 (Bayern).

Between 1973 and 1989, German clubs appeared in eight UEFA Cup finals, with M’Gladbach appearing in four and winning two in 1975 and 1979, Eintracht Frankfurt beating M’Gladbach in an all-German final in 1980, Bayer Leverkusen lifting the trophy in 1988, and Hamburg (1982), Cologne (1986), and VfB Stuttgart (1989) all coming out on the losing side.

The country was also very successful in the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup, winning five titles (four by West, one by East) between 1964/5 and 1991/2, and the same amount of runner-up finishes in that time period.

Since the unification of the country in 1990, there’s been sporadic success, as Borussia Dortmund (1997) and Bayern Munich (2001) have been crowned European champions, and Bayern (1996) and Schalke (1997) won the UEFA Cup, with Bayern (1999) and Bayer Leverkusen (2002) appearing in Champions League finals.

However, their presence has definitely waned since the halcyon days when Rummenigge was bagging loads of goals for Bayern Munich and West Germany.

But, is his grim assessment of the future of German football on the European landscape as true as he feels it is? True, having the fallback of large amounts of television revenue makes that incentive to even finish just inside the safe zone all the better, but what about from a competitive point of view?

Schalke made the Champions League quarterfinals last season, and both Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen made it deep into the UEFA Cup before being felled by Zenit St. Petersburg, who’ve built a team around Russian talent and not by spending big.

Not only do Bayern have the team to make another deep run in the Champions League, but don’t rule out Schalke and Werder Bremen’s chances either. Both have stocked their clubs well with a blend of homegrown and continental/international talent, without having to spend big to do so.

And amazingly, according to Forbes Magazine’s recent list of the world’s richest football clubs, there are more German clubs (five – Bayern, Schalke, Dortmund, Hamburg SV, and Werder Bremen) in the top 20 than there are Italian (4 – take a wild guess) or Spanish (3 – you know who), and one less than England (6 – though there are four more English clubs from 21-25). That’s not even taking into consideration the sweet financial backing that ambitious Wolfsburg have from Volkswagen and are using to catapult themselves into the upper echelon of the Bundesliga.

More telling than anything is what former Bayern star and current club manager Jurgen Klinsmann said to contradict his chairman’s statement in talking to the Sunday edition of the Suddeutsche Zeitung.

“I do not accept the argument about the lack of finances amongst our clubs compared to Europe’s top clubs.

“The top 15 clubs are all equipped with good international players and in the long-term, it is more important to have a good, hard-working team ethic than a hundred transfers.”

Precisely. If Porto and Liverpool can win Champions League titles without having to spend a mega-fortune, if Arsenal and Monaco can make finals without having to do the same, then so can Bayern, so can Schalke, so can Werder, and so can Wolfsburg even.

In the end, a compromise is going to have to be made in regards to the TV deal, and someone stands to sacrifice something either way (because isn’t that how compromises tend to work?).

Whatever happens, German club football may still linger well behind the likes of the Premier League when it comes to revenues, but the bell certainly isn’t tolling for its future, by any means.

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