'In Germany, every game has the feel of a cup final,' says McClaren

Despite his poor start, Steve McClaren is loving life at Wolfsburg. Nick Harris reports on what the Bundesliga can teach England

Thursday 16 September 2010 00:00

One of the noisiest, brightest, most exuberant scenes in European football, if not the world of sport, symbolises why Steve McClaren is still enjoying the Bundesliga despite the pressure he's experiencing at Wolfsburg from three defeats in his first three games.

The former England manager witnessed this scene in person on Saturday, as Wolfsburg lost 2-0 at Borussia Dortmund. "Magnificent," he called it, and it's certainly extraordinary.

It's Dortmund's "Yellow Wall", or Gelbe Wand, aka the precipitous Südtribüne terrace at the club's Westfalenstadion, a ground that holds 81,000 fans for league games, and just shy of 66,000 for internationals (seats only). The Wall alone houses 25,000 people for domestic fixtures, and of the places available in this bouncing, barmy swarm – a sea of flag-waving yellow, from the shirts of Dortmund – 24,000 are sold as season tickets, the others much sought after on a match-by-match basis.

The cost? A season ticket for £150, and individual games for £9 to £11. You can drink beer, eat sausage, be raucous, watch the footy and then, at the final whistle, take part in a ritual that helps to bind the team and the fans. The players line up to applaud in homage to the Wall. The Wall en masse gives the "We're not worthy bow" with flailing arms.

As with the biggest European nights at Anfield or Celtic Park – venues where games are also prefaced, as at Dortmund, by a rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' – witnessing it can send a tingle down the spine.

McClaren could be forgiven at the weekend for not dwelling long on this. He had, after all, just recorded his hat-trick of losses, with the pressure mounting ahead of his fourth game, this weekend's hosting of Hannover. Yet he remained enthused enough by his new surroundings to describe to The Independent how the German love for the beautiful game is every bit as passionate as in England.

"Every stadium you go, the atmosphere is fantastic," he said. "The Germans love their football and they love being successful and their league is growing [in popularity].

"My first impressions are that it's a very tough league, very competitive every week, a little like the Premier League. To win in the Bundesliga today, just like winning in the Premier League, takes so much effort, so much focus, so much concentration. When you win in any week, it feels like a cup final, and that's how it is here."

Wolfsburg lost his first match 2-1 (last-minute), then lost 4-3 after being 3-0 up (to Mainz), then lost on Saturday. But McClaren says: "The beauty of the Bundesliga is any one of 10 teams can win [the title]. They're not so far apart... so it's very open."

This is a glowing testimony, and it isn't isolated. A common perception is that the Bundesliga is a league, in all senses, of harmony; one with strict rules that dictate club members should own 50 per cent plus one share of voting rights; that there are few debt issues, sensible wages and cheap tickets; and that a vibrant youth system with an emphasis on home talent helps feed the national team.

All this is true, broadly, although all leagues have flaws and drawbacks, and it's no different in Germany. Not all clubs operate under the "50+1" ownership rule; majority holdings are allowed in some circumstances after long affiliations.

Wolfsburg are owned 100 per cent by Volkswagen, for example, and Bayer Leverkusen are owned 100 per cent by the pharmaceutical firm Bayer. These industrial giants pick up the tab for losses at their clubs, which are owned for marketing as well as community reasons. Their subsidies are not Abramovich-esque, but not always popular with rivals.

At Hoffenheim, the major shareholder is Dietmar Hopp, a software billionaire, and while he isn't technically in majority control, he's poured in tens of millions to take his club from the eighth division to the elite in 10 years and has an effective carte blanche. At Hannover, meanwhile, president Martin Kind is challenging the "50+1" rule because he wants to be majority owner, and invest more money to try to build his club to compete in Europe. Having a relatively equal league is fine, but Germany has not had a Champions League winner since Bayern Munich in 2001.

Minority control discourages such investment, Kind argues. A legal verdict on his challenge to "50+1" could arrive as early as next month and change German football.

While the Bundesliga has never seen a club go bust or enter administration (unlike the Premier League, with Portsmouth), it would be wrong to say financial problems never occur.

There are no individual debt mountains akin to those amassed as a result of the leveraged buyouts at Manchester United and Liverpool. But Schalke's debt reached £210m last year. Dortmund came close to bankruptcy in 2005 and signed a stadium rights naming deal with insurance firm Signal Iduna to keep the wolf from the door. And 1860 Munich, home-sharers with Bayern Munich and in the top division as recently as 2004, are a financial basket case, forced to sell their share in the Allianz Arena in 2006 to avoid going bust and now surviving partly through the largesse of Bayern.

Having said all that, Bundesliga clubs do, typically, make regular profits. They are largely unsusceptible to the whims of trophy-asset owners.

At development level, German football is healthy, witnessed not just in the youthful success of Germany finishing third at this year's World Cup. A tour of Dortmund's academy on Saturday was hosted by Lars Ricken, who scored for Dortmund against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the 1997 Champions League semi-final, then became the youngest winning scorer in a Champions League final, aged 20, netting with his first touch against Juventus.

An articulate, one-club-for-life man, at 34 he now works at the academy and explains the ethos that has persuaded Bundesliga clubs to invest £430m collectively in youth development since 2002. All Germany's elite academies must have specific standards of pitches, equipment and coaches. Quotas for German youngsters have helped increase the number of German academy products in the league – and the national team.

Even the developmental tactics – such as the formation of 4-2-3-1 – are matters of written policy at Dortmund. "Those [tactics] are most popular in the Bundesliga," Ricken says. "And we believe this system allows you to play all the other systems, and offers all the variations... The national team essentially plays the system, aggressive, well schooled, well trained."

Football has a place within the wider national mentality in Germany that it doesn't in England. Most Premier League clubs have good academies (18 of them, while Wigan and Blackpool have centres of excellence) doing much the same as in the Bundesliga. And most "scholars" in England are English (82 per cent aged 16- 18), as most are in Germany.

But at a wider level, German society – especially the education system – treats sport as much more important. Education is more flexible in Germany, where a Bundesliga "scholar" will reach 18 having had 10,000 hours of "contact time" at his club, against 3,000 hours in England.

If McClaren should get a result against Hannover this weekend, and go on from there to extend his stay in Germany, he'll no doubt discover this and other pluses. He's already seen enough to want that to happen. "The stadiums are great, magnificent; the atmosphere is brilliant," he says. "So despite the results – and I knew it was going to be hard at the beginning – I'm enjoying it."

Bundesliga v Premier League

Average attendance

Bundesliga 42,000

Premier League34,000

Global popularity (annual income from overseas TV rights)

Bundesliga £35m

Premier League £479m

Average ticket prices

Bundesliga £18.30 per seat

Premier League About £36 per seat

Wage bill as percentage of turnover

Bundesliga 51 per cent

Premier League 67 per cent

How competitive is the league?

Bundesliga 5 winners in 10 years

PremierLeague 3 winners in 10 years

Champions League success (10 years)

Bundesliga 1 winner, 2 runners-up

Premier League 2 winners, 4 runners-up

Overseas contingent

Bundesliga: 84 players went to World Cup in South Africa (No 2 league)

Premier League: 118 players went to World Cup in South Africa (No 1 league)

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