Sunday, 26 May 2013

Der Ball ist Rund

Another Champions League has come and gone, and a new club has been crowned the best in Europe, at least until next year. By beating Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund last night, Bayern Munich won its fifth Champions League title, to go along with having won the German championship this season; Bayern also stands the chance of making a sweep of the silverware this year, if it beats Stuttgart for the DFB-Pokal, the German equivalent of the FA Cup.

The game itself wasn't exactly one for the ages; the first half was characterized by dominance shifting from one half of the pitch to the other, while the goals only started coming in the second half. Of course, both of the previous times that teams from the same country faced each other the Champions League was decided by penalties (Chelsea v Manchester United in 2008, and Juventus v AC Milan in 2003), so this was at least an improvement.

More important, though, is what this portends for the European game in general. Last year I suggested that most of the previous decade had been a period of dominance for English clubs, although I also suggested this dominance was slightly illusory, given that no English team had won in open play during that time (including, as I said, in 2008). But I still believe that whenever a team gets to the Champions League final, year after year, win or lose, they are clearly the best in Europe. And by that measure, even if they'd lost last Bayern would still be Europe's strongest team, having reached the final last year and in 2010.

Will the next few years see German dominance of European football? I think it's a good bet (and I'm not the only one), particularly as Germany has finally knocked Italy out of the top tier of Champions League countries, and will send four teams to next year's competition, rather than just three.

It's also worth considering the performance of the German national team over the previous years. Germany's reached the final or semi-final of every major international tournament since 2006, by playing fast, attacking football that relies on carving opposing defenses open with excellent passing and fluid movement. For other countries, the strength of the national team would be less lightly correlated with that of individual club teams, but the Bundesliga is probably the best league for homegrown talent, better even than the Spanish league (notwithstanding Barcelona, which is effectively the Spanish national team plus Lionel Messi). In 2005, for instance, when AC Milan faced Liverpool in the Champions League final there were only three Italian and three English players starting for either team.

The key to this success, of course, has been Germany's excellent youth policy, which allowed the German FA to bring talented young players into the team quickly every couple of years; players like Lukas Podolski or Bastian Schweinsteiger, who made their first appearances in 2004, are now well established in the national set-up. They're unlikely to win next year's World Cup, because it'll be in Brazil, which has been waiting over half a century to win the World Cup on home soil, but look out for them to get to the semi-final again, at the very least.

To sum up, if connoisseurs of football were following Italy's Serie A in the 90s and Spain's Primera Liga in the 00s, then this decade already looks like it belongs to the Bundesliga.